The round of political protests in Bangkok following the violent shut-down of the ASEAN-Plus-Three meeting have abated after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva issued an emergency decree, which is still in effect.
However, leaders in the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) – or “red shirts” – have warned that they may restart demonstrations soon, as early as this weekend. The UDD faction, which supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra, was formed to counter the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – or “yellow shirts” – which arose in early 2006 to protest the policies of Thaksin, then in power but deposed in a coup later that year. Neither the UDD nor the PAD are political parties per se; rather, they are mass organizations that parallel parties but also reflect growing divides in Thai politics and Thai society.
The conflict in the streets, which has persisted for nearly three years, is framed around charges that the Thai electoral and judicial systems are too easily manipulated for political end. For example, a constant theme in UDD protests is that two pro-Thaksin Prime Ministers were removed from power last year through court cases; they charge that the judiciary has focused on Thaksin partisans but neglects impropriety on the part of political leaders from other parties.
Prime Minister Abhisit has a short window of time in which to calm these turbulent waters. Hoping to transfer the conflict from the streets to the negotiating table, he began the week by requesting that the political parties propose revisions to the Thai constitution. Thailand has had a surfeit of constitutions but there is growing consensus that defects in the 2007 charter are a continuing source of friction.
Abhisit has also signaled that the government may consider two important changes. One would be revisions to – or elimination of – Article 273 of the Constitution, which enables the courts to dissolve political parties if their leaders have committed electoral abuse. The article also bans politicians found guilty of such abuse from politics for five years. Under this provision, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party and its successor, the People’s Power Party, and several of their leaders – most famously Thaksin himself – have been removed. Abhisit’s point is that the constitution should treat electoral abuse as a criminal matter, not as a basis for political retribution. Second, Abhisit has indicated that the government may consider amnesty for politicians banned under Article 273. Either action could help to undercut UDD complaints about the current political process.
The next several days will determine if progress toward political reconciliation is possible this time in Thailand. There is much at stake beyond short-term political stability, which is a major goal at this time. Thailand is chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) until December, and the group has a number of major tasks before it. They range from crafting a collective response to the economic crisis to implementing the ASEAN Charter that was ratified last year. Beyond its regional responsibilities, the government must also address the domestic impact of the financial crisis, which has only been exacerbated with the ongoing political turbulence. The Thai political crisis is a complicated one, with deep roots and serious implications for Thailand’s future. A lasting resolution will require time and give on both sides. The search for that cannot begin unless the government is able to carve out sufficient political space for the parties to begin a dialogue.
Catharin Dalpino is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Asia Program.