Genuine reform is Thailand's best hope

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 April, 2009, 12:00am

Thailand's political turmoil has dangerously aggravated the effect of the global financial crisis on the country's economy. Any further escalation of violence could push the nation over the precipice. The country cannot afford to allow this to happen. A circuit-breaker is needed to halt the slide towards civil and economic chaos, or another military coup.

Hopefully, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has recognised this. The lifting yesterday of a recently imposed state of emergency in Bangkok came with promises of an independent investigation into violent protests, and a commission on constitutional reform.

His claim that the end of the emergency alone signals a return to normalcy and shows the government is sincere about reconciliation is unconvincing. The way forward to restoring stability, a healthy economy and growing prosperity calls for negotiation and compromise. An independent and fair investigation into protest violence is a start. It would show good faith. But hope for real progress is to be found in his proposal for a new commission to study amendments to the deeply flawed 2007 constitution, drafted by a military-installed government after a coup removed the democratically elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006.

Mr Abhisit must deliver on it if Thailand is to achieve the reconciliation necessary to restore national unity and progress.

The irony of his position will not be lost on observers of Thailand's turbulent politics. Mr Abhisit supported the 1997 'people's charter', which provided for a fully elected upper house, stronger political parties and governments, checks and balances of the exercise of power and safeguards against vote-buying. Sadly, it could not prevent Mr Thaksin eroding the democratic values it enshrined. But there remains nothing wrong with the document. The same cannot be said for the way in which Thaksin was removed.

The military intervened after protests by an urban elite opposed to his rural populism grew increasingly disruptive. But changes to the constitution and the judiciary failed to prevent the return of a government backed by Thaksin in exile. More protests and court rulings removed two prime ministers before parliament installed an unelected government led by Mr Abhisit.

Thaksin supporters, in turn, have now resorted to street protests. This led to international humiliation when a protest invasion of the venue of a summit of regional leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao , forced a last-minute cancellation.

Mr Abhisit is right to lift the state of emergency. The brief respite it brought from anti-government protests was shattered by the attempted assassination of a prominent pro-government political figure. It also did nothing for confidence, with Thai Airways reporting a 20 per cent slump in visitor bookings after it was imposed.

Calling fresh elections now does not offer a solution, since they would probably result in another pro-Thaksin government and another wave of protests. For Thailand's sake, opposing political forces must find a way to co-operate and compromise in order to restore full democracy and confidence in the nation's economy. For an unelected government seen as close to the military, convincing the generals of the need to roll back the constitutional changes aimed at foiling Thaksin will not be easy.

But, hopefully, Mr Abhisit will see that genuine constitutional reform that meets international norms, including checks and balances and an independent judiciary, offers him the best hope of securing recognition of political legitimacy.