Road map stops far short of the goal
Many in Thailand felt more optimistic about the political future following Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's offer to hold elections on November 14. But that optimism quickly waned when the 'red shirt' United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) came up with its own conditions and demands.
The UDD wants Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban to face charges for ordering the deadly crackdown on the red-shirted protesters on April 10. If the government refuses, the rally at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong intersection will not end.
Abhisit declared a five-point road map for national reconciliation last week, including upholding the monarchy, instituting political reforms, investigating last month's clashes, a new role for the media and eradicating injustice in the country. But these are merely short-term agendas put forward to unlock the current, urgent crisis. The road map was drawn up to allow all sides to get some 'fresh air', and does not really confront Thailand's core problems.
What are the core problems? First, finding a way to end the political monopoly in the hands of the Bangkok elites. Unless political power is truly decentralised, the conflict between that elite and the 'red shirts' will not disappear. All sides must respect the result of the upcoming elections. The pro-establishment forces need to acknowledge that Thai society has become more pluralistic and that there are new, powerful players. The 'red shirts' will probably win some seats at the polls, and the elites must learn to share political power.
Second, Abhisit has said he is serious about tackling the problem of inequality, but concrete measures must be produced. The gap between the haves and have-notes has widened over the years, with Bangkok still firmly controlling the national economy, generating about 70 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. The capital has also swallowed up most foreign direct investment, leaving little for the rest of the country.
This wealth gap was exploited by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The image of Abhisit as the defender of the interests of the Bangkok elites has persistently upset poor villagers in remote regions.
Third, the Bangkok elites must begin a serious dialogue with Thaksin. The former leader, while fleeing Thai law, has continued to provoke the red-shirted demonstrators to employ all possible means to unseat the Abhisit government. His actions have done great damage to Thailand and affected security in the region. Alienating him further will not end the political turmoil.
Finally, protecting the monarchy from the radical elements among the 'red shirts' may have been one of the most important points in the road map. But it fails to elaborate on the future role of the nation's monarchy. Discussing issues related to the royal succession is still taboo in Thailand. Yet the government should encourage debate on this subject, to prepare Thais to cope with perhaps an even more uncertain situation after the current, much-revered monarch passes from the scene.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore