New political equation needed in Thailand

WITH protracted “red shirts” protests showing no signs of weakness, the Thai government is running out of options to deal with the challenge and to protect country’s economy and image. The Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has made it clear that he is not ready to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections as demanded by the opposition.
Declaring a martial law in Bangkok and subsequent crackdown against protesters seem imminent but this step is fraught with serious risks. Many observers believe that the country could descend into civil war after a bloody crackdown against “red shirts”.
But the current stand-off cannot be allowed to prevail either. The sporadic violence between protesters and security forces has so far claimed 27 lives while nearly 1,000 have been injured. The nagging crisis is already taking its toll on Thai economy particularly the tourism sector which accounts for six per cent of country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The “red shirt” protesters have turned Bangkok’s commercial heart into a protest camp, forcing the closure of some of the city’s biggest shopping malls and hotels.
Many countries have issued travel advisories, urging their citizens to refrain from visiting Thailand, a move which is likely to affect investment in Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy. There are also some reports suggesting that some of the big companies are considering shifting their businesses to neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore.
The political instability is not only damaging the Thai economy and image but also affecting the image of Southeast Asia as a region of peace and stability. This was pointed out by the head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Surin Pitsuwan, last month. “The situation is affecting confidence in the security and stability of the region and if it is left to fester and escalate, it could lead to more violence and losses of lives,” he said.
Many members of Asean have shown concern over this situation and some have even offered their help to Thailand in resolving the situation. But Thailand has strongly rejected the idea of foreign assistance. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya has issued a statement saying that the “Thai government is in control of the situation does not need foreign assistance”.
International allies of Thailand particularly the United States have also expressed concern over the situation and called for a political solution.
Finding a political solution is an international demand and a sensible way to avoid bloodshed in the country. However, if we look at the ground reality and deeply divisive politics in Thailand, we would realise that achieving a political solution is not as simple and easy as it is considered.
Thai crisis is a battle between the “yellow shirts” that back Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the “red shirts”, supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
These two groups represent two different classes and segments of Thai society. The “yellow shirts” draw their support from Thailand’s influential business and bureaucratic elite, while the “red shirts” are supported by the rural and urban poor who make up the vast majority of the country’s more than 60 million population.
In terms of numbers “red shirts” have an edge and they can easily elect the future Prime Minister of the country. But the “yellow shirts” have proven in past that they can destabilise and overthrow any government with their huge influence on military, judiciary, and royal palace.
If the current Thai government holds immediate elections, it knows Thaksin backers will seize a majority like they did in past three elections. But there are doubts that even this step will bring back stability to Thailand. Many believe that the military, the judiciary and the “yellow shirts” would likely to again seek to undermine a pro-Thaksin administration.
This seems to be part of a vicious circle of instability that is going on for decades in Thailand. There has to be an end to that as political instability acts like a repellent for foreign investment and tourism. The country cannot afford to live in isolation and lag behind other emerging economies in this era of globalisation.
To end this vicious cycle, the rival politicians, military high-ups and other stakeholders in Thailand need to sit together and find a permanent and long-time solution to the problem in the best interest of the country and its people. Thailand’s highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is the only unifying figure in the country, can play a great role in this regard.
With a sincere will to find a solution, the political and military leadership can work together for a new constitution, or a power-sharing deal, which could be acceptable to all groups.
They can re-write the political equation and come-up with an agreement under which legitimate interests of each stakeholder is protected.
This is not a novel idea as these kinds of power-sharing deals have been successfully tried in many countries of the world.
The recent example is Zimbabwe where President Robert Mugabe signed a deal with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai after a prolonged crisis and Tsvangirai became prime minister under Mugabe.

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