Time for Thailand to tackle restrictive taboos

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 May, 2010, 12:00am

The military crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bangkok has restored calm, at least outwardly. But the deep national divide that sparked the unrest and protest remains; if anything, it may have widened. The gravity of the challenge facing the country has prompted a rare comment on a member's internal affairs by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which says Thailand's peace, stability and economic development is crucial to the regional grouping's future.

Two months of protests left more than 80 dead and hundreds wounded, and a US$3 billion bill for property damage, including the torching of 39 buildings by retreating protesters. The bloodshed could have been worse had common sense not prevailed. Most of the protesters from the 'red shirt' movement followed their leaders' call to withdraw in the face of the army onslaught.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has vowed to quickly restore normalcy and to embark on a process of national reconciliation. How ready the government is to do so remains to be seen; it has played down the protest, blaming it on agitators and the influence of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra among the urban and rural poor. The reality is that protesters have been welcomed back home as heroes in rural areas, where 75 per cent of voters live; unrest has spread outside the capital and much of the countryside has been under a curfew. Without genuine progress towards reconciliation, a repeat of the violence cannot be ruled out.

Abhisit heads a weak, unelected coalition government, following a coup that toppled Thaksin, the imposition by the military of a flawed constitution, and court rulings that ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments. Certainly there is strong anti-Thaksin sentiment in a substantial proportion of the electorate; but attempts to solely blame Thaksin for inciting unrest ignore the fact that the erosion of democracy has consolidated broad-based opposition to rule by an urban elite.

Dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections is not likely to bring stability. Protest leaders rejected Abhisit's offer of elections in November. A pro-Thaksin victory seems likely in a fair election, but it's unlikely the urban elite, royalists and military would simply fade away in the face of such an outcome. Any other outcome would likely bring the 'red shirts' out on the street again.

Thailand is no stranger to political crises. In the past personal intervention by the constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has proved a resolution of last resort. But the revered king, now aged 82 and ailing in hospital, has not stepped in. Regrettably his son and heir Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn does not command the same respect, and nothing has been done to reduce ultimate dependence on the king to maintain stability.

A senior Bangkok police officer has said that red-shirt leaders arrested after the protests had been told they faced charges of insulting the monarchy, under strictly enforced lese-majeste laws that put violators in jail. If Abhisit is sincere about reconciliation and national unity, he should distance himself from that threat. More sensible is a recent call by Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya for open discussion on these laws. They are in fact an obstacle to free political debate, including the role of the monarchy in a more democratic Thailand. Such taboos do nothing for the country's prospects of developing into a peaceful and stable nation. It needs an inclusive discussion on what sort of society the people want if there is to be consensus on how it might be achieved peacefully.