Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights

THAILAND: Mayhem Has Little Room for Rights, Restraint

BANGKOK, May 18 2010 (IPS) - Amid gunfire and street battles here and heated, divided emotions playing out in Thailand’s worst political crisis in decades, there has been little room for discussing human rights, restraint and finding a middle ground.

This is despite cautious hope amid yet another attempt at talks between the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) to put a stop to the violence that has wracked the Thai capital since May 13, when the army started a lockdown of the protesters’ rally site.

On Tuesday, both sides said they found acceptable an offer by Senate speaker Prasopsuk Boondej to mediate in the bloody crisis that has so far led to 37 dead and 282 injured.

But the two sides disagree on how to get back to talks. The UDD says it will enter into talks and leave its rally site in Rajprasong district only after the military stops its operation to block off the protest camp. On national television, Sathit Wongnongtoey from the Prime Minister’s Office said talks can happen only after the rally ends.

The latest discussion comes after a government official’s conversation Monday with UDD leader Natthawut Saikua, one that did not offer much hope. The talk took all of five minutes, government negotiator Korbsak Sabhavasu told Thai television.

Meantime, five days since the army operation started, affected residents are protecting their homes from looting after power and water supplies were cut Thursday last week.

The government and the army appear on television several times a day, giving updates and warning of “terrorists” among protesters. The government’s Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) shows video clips and photos of some UDD protesters with guns.

Many simply want the mayhem to end.

“This is just dragging on with nothing clear out there. We just have more fellow Thais dead and we don’t know really who is who any more,” said one elderly man, scouring through newspapers full of bloody images of the crisis at a newsstand.

Adding to the uncertainty is the rollercoaster sequence of events since Sunday, when the government gave UDD protesters, called red shirts due to their protest colour, until 3 p.m. Monday to leave Rajprasong or face two years’ imprisonment.

The deadline passed, triggering speculation about differences among authorities about proceeding with a crackdown on the rally site itself, where 5,000 protesters remain.

The operation to cordon off the more than four square-kilometre area around the Rajprasong camp has been far from easy. In the English-language daily ‘The Nation’, writer Avudh Panananda called it “clumsy” and said the government and the military, whose chief had said he did not want to use violence, were working “in an atmosphere of mistrust.”

Pitched battles continue between protesters and soldiers around barricades of burning tyres or near army checkpoints. The fear of snipers, caught in photos as clad in black garb and whose identities remain unknown, persists.

There have been a few voices of concern about civilian casualties, stressing the need to keep to human rights standards.

While the UDD has gone “far beyond the limits” of exercising the right to protest, “this in no way provides the Government with any licence to use firearms nor to kill, which resulted in the loss of lives and injuries,” Sriprapha Petcharamesree, Thai representative to the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, said in a statement.

“We’d say to the Thai authorities that recognising that you face a serious challenge, this doesn’t mean – this is not a war situation – that everybody on the other side is a combatant,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said in a phone interview from New York.

“Part of our concern is that Thai army troops are not trained in policing but are undertaking a mission they have not been trained for,” he said.

He cited United Nations (U.N.) principles on law enforcers’ use of force and firearms, which say that they must “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence.”

CRES head Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd said Tuesday: “The military are tasked only to cordon off the protest area and set up blockades, but not to harm the people.”

Robertson and Sripapha said the UDD leaders – who say that they are a peaceful movement – must rein in anyone using weapons. “They should take responsibility and stop the attacks with war weapons coming from their side,” Robertson added.

The government should stop its operation and set up a fact-finding team with “regional and/or international members” to look into the dispersals of protests, Sripapha added. “Any team appointed by the government shall not enjoy any credibility.”

“Regarding U.N. mediation, the United Nations always stands ready to help. However, both sides must be in agreement to the U.N.’s involvement,” Choi Soung-ah, a spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, said in reply to a question by IPS in New York. U.N. chief Ban ki-moon had earlier called for restraint and talks.

Since March, the red shirts – whose political patron is the fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – have been demanding the dissolution of Parliament and a new election.

Drawing support from rural protesters, they said the Abhisit government came to power in 2008 through manoeuvring by the military instead of an election, after the Bangkok elite found ways to boot out or make ineligible for office the political parties – allies of Thaksin – who had won previous polls.

In May, Abhisit offered a November poll date. But some UDD leaders made new demands, including Abhisit’s accountability for an Apr. 10 crackdown. The protest has since continued, though more moderate leaders were willing to accept the poll offer. Abhisit then revoked the election offer and the army blockade started last week.

“I can’t imagine it,” a Thai lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of troops breaking up the main Rajprasong rally site. Yet many are tired of seeing daily lives affected by the protest. “Abhisit already made an offer and has been gentle,” said one city resident.

But then again, another resident says he could not find a soldier or police officer to help guard an area that has been evacuated and where robberies have occurred. “I’m not red, but the government seems unable to handle this, so maybe it’s better if it left.”

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