August 26, 2014

Rival camps on deadly collision course  Bangkok Post May 15th, 2014
This is a pre-edited version of the piece that appeared in Bangkok Post May 15th - reposted because Bangkok Post takes material off after 60 days). If the PDRC has now been swept aside, the victory, politically, has been theirs in many ways, with the new military dictatorship bent on "eradication" of the Thaksin network and criminalizing political expression, especially of red-shirted elements and dissidents on 112.
For a Constituent Assembly - my title.

For the last few days I’ve visited the protest sites of the rival camps in Thailand’s ongoing crisis. At both, protestors have told me they are willing to die for their cause. On Sunday, at the United Front for Democracy Against Democracy (UDD) site in the Phuttamonthon district some 30 kilometres from central Bangkok, Bu (not her real name) cautiously switches from Thai to English to tell me that the protest sought royal protection through the Crown Prince [following a long tradition of decorating protests with royal imagery as a form of protection]. Indeed, the red-shirt rally is positioned close to the Crown Prince’s palace.  Bu is one of many farmers from the Northeast of the country – the heartland of the current care-taker government – who have joined the protest to protect the pro-Thaksin care-taker government, after Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office last week by the Constitutional Court, along with a third of her Cabinet.  

The affinity the protestors have for the Crown Prince is hardly a secret, with T’shirts proclaiming “we love the Crown Prince” “or we love 904” a reference to the Crown Prince’s radio signature.  Bu and others have joined the protest on rotation, expecting to stay for a week – to be replaced by others she knows who are already on standby from her province. During the hot long days before big-name speakers take to the stage at night, refuge is sought under a bridge and in makeshift tents that dot the protest site.  Hundreds of stalls selling or distributing  t’shirts, rice-cookers, satellite disks and newspapers provide some shade and reminders of past battles fought. CDs of fiery speeches and red-shirt confrontations with security forces are on sale or constantly replayed on old televisions. They await the evening crowds who will fill the long empty Aksa Road that has been closed to traffic by red-shirt guards at either end.  

On Monday evening from the protest stage a former lecturer from Chulalongkorn university, said to have lost her job due to her political activities, reads a poem by recently assassinated  ‘people’s poet’  “Nai Neung”.  An advocate of reform of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which severely punishes lese majeste, his death was rumoured to be at the hands of an underground movement to wipe out those disloyal to the “Institution” as the monarchy is colloquially  known. He was said to be the first victim of the ominously named Organization to Remove Rubbish, which announced a witchhunt against those disloyal to the monarchy.  Then rumours swirled that it was not so simple. That the poet was part of an underground armed element of the redshirts and his death was “more complicated”. The death sums up the difficulty of being certain about anything in this crisis.

The protest will stay put as long as the care-taker government faces the threat of forced removal. Should a challenger interim government emerge out of initiatives by informal meetings of the Senate that commenced on Monday, it can be expected that the protestors ranks will swell into the hundreds of thousands and move en-masse into central Bangkok to protect the care-taker government. Should this occur Thailand will possess two governments claiming  legitimacy and demanding loyalty from state agencies.  

At the People’s Democratic Reform Committee and related group protest sites I came across a sentiment that I can only describe as smug expectation that victory will be theirs.  On Sunday the protest leader Suthep Thaungsuban, former Secretary General of  the Democrat Party which boycotted the February election, was allowed to set up office in government house, being politely flanked by soldiers. The ease of occupation bloated an already swelling smugness. On stage he declared – “all are welcome to come and see me, I am ready now. I said I wouldn’t talk to you, but I am ready now. Come!”, to admiring cheers and whistles of the crowd. On Monday evening Suthep met with Acting Senate President in a polite exchange  and expressed his desire for remaining legitimate agencies of the state to appoint an interim government. Far away, at the red-shirt rally the cry is to stop Suthep’s rebellion and push forward to a new election.

As the various anti-Thaksin forces gather to pressure for the removal of yet another pro-Thaksin government), the language on the PDRC stage is both demagogic and technical. Suthep appears tired on stage, constantly wiping his forehead and swaying gently from side to side. He speaks of himself as the “medium” of the people (emulating Thaksin’s egotism), but at times his stage presence reminds of a lawyer explaining the various mitigations of a transgression. His constant reference to Article-this and Article-that of the 2007 constitution on why an appointed government is constitutional are breathtakingly ingenious. It is constitutional white-noise meant to cover a brazen attempt to fell the current care-taker government by any means possible. The crowd is lured to quiet with such legalities, stirred only by talk of the “evil family”,  eradicating corruption and the Thaksin regime, and folksy idioms I cannot fully grasp.

The 2007 constitution which is used by both sides to argue their respective cases, is one birthed by the anti-Thaksin 2006 coup. Despite this, it has not been able to stop the electoral preference of a majority expressing support for the side the coup was meant to eradicate. The constitutional upper hand is with the anti-Thaksin side, for the coup enabled strong anti-Thaksin elements to occupy key offices in the so-called independent agencies of the state and in the appointed parts of the Senate. Despite the PDRC’s reactionary rantings, the anti-Thaksin side is not a marginal minority waiting for history-as-justice to sweep it aside (even if the PDRC may be). It is a substantial force that must also be accommodated in any settlement to this conflict. But it needs to compromise too, and it must recognise the mandate given to successive pro-Thaksin governments since the 2006 coup d’etat (2007, 2011 and probably 2014 had the poll proceeded properly).

Thailand now faces an enormous challenge of political transition. It can push through with either side prevailing – and it is not clear which side would prevail just now - but at enormous cost to peace and life. Or it can be a transition that recognizes the validity of some elements of each camp’s claim. To do that would raise the possibility of a peaceful resolution and to begin the hard work of democratizing the conflict into a new social contract.

Both sides have a responsibility to seek a resolution that does not cause further loss of life to their respective rank and files – it is they who have paid the highest cost already  -  as rival elites go for broke.

Somehow Thailand has to retreat from the brink. This would entail a recognition of the electoral mandate of the current care-taker government. Under its administration with an agreement on extraordinary powers,   a constituent assembly could be formed that accommodates a range of interests and political persuasions to establish new rules that, being fairly agreed upon, all must be subject to, and which then are ruthlessly applied without prejudice. The 2007 Constitution lacks this founding legitimacy and resolving the conflict under its auspices will lead to further violence and protest or a repressive military coup.

Michael Connors.