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AseanAffairs Magazine May - June 2010

Prime Minister Najib Razak vows to take Malaysia forward and transform it into a high income nation through economic and social reforms. Initial responses to this ambitious drive are mixed, details are scarce and investors play wait-and-see.Yet, Najib insists he’s got support to push ahead.

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Thai Politics:

Land of Competing Colours

It is not easy to get used to living in a country that has been plagued by political strife for the last four years. Yet most citizens and expatriates in Thailand just cannot help it but adapt to the uncertainty and get going. Well, there is one exception - the newshounds – particularly those who work for big time global broadcasters and newswires. They seem to have been attracted by the political excitement that often was accompanied by seizure of government institutions, an international airport and a ritzy commercial hub in the heart of the capital, and most recently by grenades and shootings. For most visitors, Thailand has been a ‘land of smiles’, although not many Thais are smiling these days. To those who still venture into the country, despite travel warnings from their own governments, Thailand may appear to be a ‘land of competing colours’.

Behind the Sensational

Reports for the Uninitiated: The reports and analyses from the news giants can often be misleading either due to dramatisation or inadequate understanding of how Thai politics work. Half-truths and sensational reporting catch eyeballs, though.

Few Thais bother to follow the English language press, and the Thai government, whose image is often portrayed by the foreign media in a negative way, seems more interested in the vernacular media and the impact they have on the public.

But the problem with the foreign press is that it keeps touching what is locally considered the most sensitive subject – the monarchy and politics, and the need for reforms. That upset a few Thais who felt offended by what they saw as unfair reports. Here is an excerpt from a letter to the editor featured in a local English language daily mid-April 2010. The letter writer found Tim Johnston’s article “Thailand’s royal taboo under pressure” in the Financial Times of April 15 biased and out of balance.

… the article dwells on the oft-repeated need to reform the monarchy, which nobody doubts except for the timing. And the timing is crucial at this juncture with the red shirts in the streets, some of whose leaders now talk of the new Thai State to redress social ills... concerning the so-called draconian Thai lese majeste law referred to in the FT article, it should be noted that those found guilty are invariably released by royal pardon. Much more relevant is the fact that the government has now set up a committee to revamp the law, which came under criticism from His Majesty the King himself …

It is a matter of time before Thailand embarks on the inevitable task of royal reforms. While the media abroad may consider it a key issue requiring urgent attention, few Thais, including the antigovernment protesters, see it appropriate to rush especially when their beloved king remains in hospital. For most citizens it is the restoration of law and order that needs immediate attention. This is the issue few media overseas care to look into.

The Reluctant Generals

It is likely that Prime Minister Abhisit was forced to offer a house dissolution to break the country’s political deadlock due to the army’s reluctance to use force to clear anti-government protesters from Ratchaprasong intersection, an upscale business hub in the capital.

Army chief Anupong Paojinda has made it clear his opposition to crackdown on red shirt demonstrators, hinting he favours a house dissolution and the use of political measures to solve the impasse. Politicians should facilitate talks between the government and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship or the red shirts, insisted Gen Anupong. Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, took the same line, saying: “It’s unacceptable for me to use soldiers to shoot Thais”.

The prime minister did push the general to take a decisive role in ending the rallies by appointing him chief of security operations but the army leader has made no obvious effort to disperse the reds’ rally. As the political crisis drags on, the government has invoked threats to national security, terrorism and attacks on the monarchy as grounds for the army to clear the protesters from Bangkok’s streets. But the army has maintained its support for Gen Anupong’s position that a political resolution is the only way out of the crisis. As the military chiefs refuse to all that the government can do is to just threaten the red shirts with the use of force.

This inability of Mr Abhisit to convert his words into reality most probably re-sulted in the road map on May 3, which has made little progress. Just when it seemed that a deal to bring two months of bitter and bloody stand-off to an end could be possible, Thailand’s deep divisions have resurfaced.

New violence erupted in the Thai capital on May 7, killing a policeman and causing other casualties, jeopardising what had seemed like progress to resolving a sometimes bloody two-month standoff between the government and protesters who are seeking new elections.

Earlier the same day, the red shirts said they agree in principle with a proposal by Prime Minister Abhisit to dissolve Parliament and hold new polls - their key demands - but want more specific details and assurance that Abhisit has the full support of his coalition partners and other political actors.

Abhisit’s proposal included new elections on November 14 - about a year before his term would end - if the protesters left their encampment in the heart of the Thai capital. The Parliament must be dissolved at least 45 days before the elections.

The plan also includes respect for the monarchy, reforms to resolve economic injustice, media reforms, independent investigations of violence connected with the protests, and amending the constitution to be more fair to all political parties.

But the date of the dissolution of Parliament has since become a sticking point, with the red shirts insisting it be specified and Abhisit saying only it would happen in time for the November election, but possibly as early as September. No date would be fixed if the Red Shirts did not agree to the plan, said the prime minister.

“Abhisit, don’t you dare threaten us that if we don’t do what you say in the five-point plan, you will not dissolve Parliament,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a red shirt leader. “We are calling - not begging - for House dissolution.”

The timing is a crucial issue because a key reshuffle of top military posts is scheduled for September, and the protesters do not want Abhisit at the helm then. Now the ball is in the military court again.

The Genie Is Out!

There have recently been talks about a new political landscape that may soon be taking shape as the call for social equality and rebuilding of society gets increasingly louder. This is a positive development that can eventually put an end to painting the democracy in different colours.

The biggest hurdles include cynical views. For example, there are those who see the red shirts as mere pawns in a bid by ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, their paymaster, to return to power after being ousted in a 2006 military coup and found guilty of corruption.

The red shirts, they believe, are far less interested in democracy than a return to what they say are the “happy, prosperous times” that the underprivileged enjoyed thanks to cheap health care, debt alleviation and other populist policies initiated by their hero Thaksin.

After funding the protests and returning to Bangkok from exile, the telecomtycoon- turned-politician would revert to the authoritarian style, corruption and cronyism that were the hallmarks of his tenure. The road to democracy would again be barricaded.

Others think that the red movement has gone beyond Thaksin and some of its leaders may not even want him back in town, having tasted power and faced bullets while Thaksin ate caviar and brokered big business deals abroad.

Dr Weng Tojirakarn, a key protest leader, one of those who fled to the communist side in the 1970s, called for greater education opportunities for rural children, the elimination of the notorious loan sharks in rural areas, and an end to rice and rubber monopolies that have led to low prices for farmers.



Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva unveiled
the reconciliation plan on May 3 in a television address saying that a general election would be held on Nov14 - but only if five objectives underpinning reconciliation were achieved.
     • the monarchy must not be used as a tool in political conflicts;
     • the country must be reformed by tackling economic disparities and inequality;
     • the media must refrain from reports which exacerbate social or political conflicts;
     • an independent fact-finding panel must be appointed to review fatal incidents involving security forces and protesters;
     • and the reconciliation process must be carried out with the cooperation of all sides.

Grenade blasts in and around Bangkok became a regular feature scaring city dwellers daily as the march of the red shirt worsened traffic congestions across the capital. Mysteriously, there were no one claiming responsibility for the explosions, nor there was a single explosion hitting the red shirts.

TIMELINE (2010):
14 Mar : Red-shirts converge on Bangkok, hold first big rally, occupy government district
16 Mar : Protesters splash their own blood at Government House
30 Mar : A round of talks with the government ends in deadlock
3 Apr : Red-shirts occupy Bangkok shopping district
10 Apr : Troops try to clear protesters; 25 people are killed and hundreds injured
22 Apr : Grenade blasts kill one and injure 85 near protest hub; each side blames the other
3 May : PM Abhisit offers reconciliation plan and polls on 14 November
7 May : One policeman was killed and three people were injured in a drive-by shooting, throwing into doubt the prime minister’s reconciliation road map


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