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AseanAffairs Magazine September - October 2010

Thai Prime Minister
Abhisit Vejjajiva

Four months on in the reconciliation process Asean Affairs examines the progress and shortcomings of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s plan to bridge

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                        ROAD TO RECONCILIATION
    Will Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s roadmap to reconciliation pull the the country together?

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, left, moves to bring Thailand together following the disastrous end of the red

Can government-appointed reform panels bring real answers to the social and economic divisions that divide Thailand? 
May 19, 2010

An hour before the Royal Thai Army moved to quash the two-month-old protest in the center of Bangkok, the army head, General Anupong Paojinda, who retires at the end of September, signed the order authorizing the action. The choice was clear: end the protests or Thailand would be in a state of anarchy on its way to a civil war. The general’s reluctance to make an earlier response reportedly was that he did not want his name to go down in history as a Thai army leader who unleashed Thai forces against Thai people. This reluctance, in addition to the total ineptitude of the Royal Thai Police, many of whom were described as “watermelon” police (underneath their green uniforms they sided with the red shirt cause), helped the red shirt protest fester and grow, eventually ending in the deaths of 91 people between April 10 and May 21, including two foreign journalists. Following their dispersal from their main site on May 19, red shirt arson squads torched 39 government and private buildings, seriously damaging many.

What now?

Thai Prime Minister and then Chairman of Asean, Abhisit Vejjajiva delivered the keynote address at the 6th Asean Leadership Forum, organized by AseanAffairs on 19 June 2009, Bangkok.
Timeline of Abhisit’s 20 months in office
Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister of Thailand on 17 Dec. 2008 following a six-month period of political instability in Thailand. He stated his administration would focus on promoting national harmony and fixing Thailand’s economy.

While national harmony remains an elusive target, the Thai economy has rebounded to a level equaling the highs before the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Abhisit and Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij are pursuing economic reforms to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in Thailand. At present, the tax base of Thailand is only 10 million out of a population of 65 million. The first piece is a real estate tax on land and buildings that now is with the Thai cabinet waiting approval. Thailand currently has 321 million rai (48.6 million hectares) of idle land, often owned by wealthy individuals. The concept is to tax the land to get it into production and increase the tax base. Collected taxes will go to local administrations. Property taxes in Thailand have historically fallen short...............

The protesters returned to their mostly rural homes often in buses provided by the government. Most of their leaders remained in jail on terrorism charges and daily life resumed in Bangkok, hardly missing a beat, as the economy roared to a 9.1 percent gross domestic product increase in the second quarter (the time when the protests occurred). A few leaders escaped to neighboring countries, most notably Arisman Pongruengrong, reportedly seen by tourists in Cambodia. A national state of emergency continued throughout the country, providing a legal framework to quickly respond to terrorist acts, but the emergency was lifted in most of Thailand by September, with the exception of Bangkok, where seven bombs or grenades exploded in trash cans around the city, injuring the security guards who discovered them.

Reconciliation plan

The Abhisit Vejjajiva government, a coalition government led by the prime minister’s Democrat Party, proposed three committees: the Truth and Reconciliation committee headed by former attorney general Kanit na Nakorn, the National Reform Assembly led by social critic Prawase Wasi, Ph.D, and the Committee for National Reform headed by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun. There is also a media reform committee, the Working Group on Media Reform headed by Yubol Benjarongkit, dean of Communications Arts Chulalongkorn University. This committee is independent and composed of media members.

Can these committees propose and then have implemented progressive measures that will heal the country? Worldwide critics of the committee approach often point out that appointing committees ensures that nothing is going to happen. If political reform in Thailand consisted of developing a new constitution or amending an existing one, then the country would appear to have had at least 18 political reforms, including the constitutions, since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was replaced by the present constitutional monarchy. But the reforms have been stymied or overlooked by politicians acting in their own usually corrupt self-interest rather than the country’s interest. These larger committees have also formed subcommittees.

The most important seem to be the Police Reform Committee headed by former police general Vasit Dejkunjorn, who also headed the last Police Reform Committee during the interim government of Suranand Chulanont in 2007. His reform panel suggestions at that time sparked an outcry from a group of retired police generals, and because of the interim status of the Chulanont government the suggestions were not put in place. The other subcommittee of note is the Constitutional Reform Committee headed by Sombat Thamrongthanyawong. The members of the committee and their leaders have received generally good reviews from the Thai press in Bangkok, but what of the masses and the opposition?

The opposition and Thaksin

The opposition party, Puea Thai, which is a reincarnation of two parties (both parties were dissolved due to corruption) led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, finally weighed in on the reform and reconciliation process in early September. Many of the Puea Thai party leaders were active in the protest, and those that are not members of parliament are in jail on terrorist charges. The party suggested holding talks in a peaceful manner, a pledge of nonviolence, loyalty to the monarchy and immediately starting the reconciliation process.

However, deputy Puea Thai leader Plodrasop Surawasdi warned, “This statement is the offering of an olive branch. It can also be an ultimatum.” Four days later the party basically put a freeze on any more conciliatory steps as it awaited a response from the government. In September, Thaksin made a call-in to supporters in Pattaya following a month of silence. He said that he had been quiet to avoid disturbing the reconciliation process. He also did not reveal his whereabouts, although the Prime Minister Abhisit said Thaksin “was in the region”. There was a rumor that he was in Brunei.


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