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THAILAND: Political Wounds Go Far Beyond Burnt Buildings, Deaths

BANGKOK, May 21 2010 (IPS) - The charred skeletons of buildings in central Bangkok will be rebuilt after this week’s violence, but repairing the gaping fissures in Thai society – deepened further by the army crackdown on anti-government protesters – remains a far harder task.

In the short term, many Thais fear the onset of underground and guerrilla attacks by those frustrated by the end of the protests led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), whose leaders surrendered on May 19 as troops moved into their rally site.

The period between now and the latest time by which the next election should be held in December next year – voting has been a core issue in this crisis – bears watching after the mayhem that in the last eight days has led to 52 deaths and 407 injured, going by official figures.

In the longer term, tough questions arise over how the frayed political consensus around the parliamentary electoral system – and room for resolving grievances – can be fixed given the divisions since the 2006 coup that ousted the fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Beyond the violence seen in troops clashing with armed UDD supporters and arson attacks after their leaders’ surrender, protesters’ demands centred on a new election under the parliamentary system in this country of 67.8 million people.

Elections are a tool for seeking fresh mandates during crises. But how much confidence is now left in them as a way of changing leaders and pushing change within the system – in the process letting off steam – has yet to be seen.

“I don’t think you can get back the hearts of these people (rural protesters) with so many killed like this,” said Chulalongkorn University professor Puangthong Pawapakan. “The government can never go to the north and north-east now.”

Those regions, which include this South-east Asian country’s poorest, are where the UDD draws much of its backing from, though a mix of city residents also backed the protests.

The north-easterners’ presence at the rally at Rajprasong commercial district was clear from the strains of local ‘luk thung’ music, the baskets of ‘khao niao’ (sticky rice), grilled chicken and ‘som tum’ (papaya salad), and their accent.

After the violence, “I don’t think it (Democrat Party-led government) can win an election whenever it will be held,” said a Thai activist who did not want to be named.

This reflects the disconnect between the rural heartland, home to majority of the population, and the capital, seat of the political elite. “There are two societies in this country, and they have little contact with each other. They don’t know each other and they don’t understand each other,” Puangthong said.

This gulf may well have widened after May 13, when the army moved to block off the protest site ahead of the final crackdown on May 19.

Pledging to pursue reconciliation, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Friday: “We recognise that as we move ahead there are huge challenges ahead of us, particularly the challenge of overcoming the divisions that have arisen in this country.”

Meantime, emotions remain high. “Do you think that your government would be as tolerant as the Thai government has been?” business owner Reungvit Nandhabiwat asked foreigners in the English-language ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper.

“These protesters from the countryside didn’t know any better, they have no education,” said one company manager. In the months since they began their protests in March, UDD protesters – called red shirts due to their protest colour – have been disdainfully called ‘red buffaloes’.

But some disagree. “Dozens of people have died today, and hundreds were wounded, for the crime of standing up to a government that denies them the right to shape their own destinies,” wrote one resident. “And yet wealthy citizens of Bangkok mourn the loss of a shopping centre,” he said, referring to the torching of the upscale Centralworld mall.

These differences have cut across academia and civil society as well.

They go back to the days around the 2006 coup that ousted the exiled Thaksin, who has been convicted of corruption and who is the UDD patron. His role has often been a liability for the red shirts, because many see him as discrediting any cause.

Puangthong says rural red shirts back Thaksin’s pro-poor programmes, and do not care much about the corruption many detest him for. “They feel that they have been treated badly by the Bangkokians,” she said. “Their power in choosing and voting in an election has been blocked several times.”

Elections have been a key part of the political upheaval here in recent years, including when the Democrats boycotted the 2006 vote that then incumbent Thaksin had called to seek a new mandate amid protests by the yellow shirts and a furore over his business dealings.

Thaksin’s party won most of legislative seats, but results were later nullified. His political party was disbanded for electoral violations.

In the first election after the military rule in 2007, rural voters voted into power another pro-Thaksin party. Two prime ministers from this party then lost their offices through court verdicts. Their brief tenures were marked by rallies by the yellow shirts, who occupied the Suvarnabhumi international airport in 2008.

With a changed configuration in parliament in December 2008, the Democrats won a parliamentary that the UDD argues was maneuvered by the military – and negated the results of votes that pro-Thaksin groups had won.

This cycle led to calls for a new social contract to respect the results of elections, as the UDD launched its protest this year – its second since the April 2009 one.

Abhisit has said that a new election would not solve these problems, but critics say the government fears losing to pro-Thaksin groups. In early May, a month after the red shirts occupied Rajprasong, Abhisit offered a Nov. 14 poll date with a roadmap of reforms that addresses social and economic inequalities.

Protest leaders were divided over the offer, the rally continued, and the government revoked the poll date. By the time the UDD leaders offered unconditional talks in exchange for a ceasefire on May 18, the government said this was not possible without ending the protest.

There are calls for a new poll and electoral and constitutional reforms, but the government faces a credibility issue since its crackdown led to a casualty count consisting almost totally of civilians, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

He says that working with moderate red shirts and fixing “parliamentary and constitutional processes,” including laws that banned elected politicians, could bypass Thaksin’s clout and allow real dialogue.

A new election at this point is needed – not because it is a UDD demand – but because the government must take “political responsibility” for the deaths in the crackdown and the deep wounds these have caused, says Tep, a doctoral student.

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