Thailand Protesters Seeking a Solution

Tentative signs are emerging that the leaders of a protest movement demanding that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down from office are seeking a possible negotiated settlement to the current crisis.

A march and rally Thursday, centered on a high-end shopping mall near the Asoke intersection, meanwhile drew fewer than 7,500 people, a far smaller gathering than earlier protests that saw as many as 200,000 people in the streets. But it also attracted enthusiastic crowds of office workers and others who waved Thai flags and blew whistles from overpasses and a mass rail station overlooking the protest.

Yingluck, who has dissolved parliament and called for a snap election, was berated by speaker after speaker, sometimes with vulgar language that that drew laughter from the crowd.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said the protest was a tune-up for what is envisioned to be a much larger protest on Sunday to increase the pressure on Yingluck to resign. That action is to include a “women only” march on Yingluck’s residence to demand her resignation.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, knowledgeable sources in Bangkok say protest leaders are looking for a way out of a manufactured political crisis designed to get Yingluck and her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a coup in 2006, out of politics in a manner acceptable to the military, the royal palace and the business community.

Tentative talks on a settlement have been held between protest leaders and the opposition Democratic Party on one side and Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party on the other, sources say. Yingluck has not been involved in the talks.

It is too early to say that any agreements have been reached, sources say, but it appears that one scenario would involve having the Thai Senate name an interim government that would include respected elder figures who are supposedly neutral politically and would preside over a “reform” process in lieu of elections for a period of a year or more.

It is highly unlikely that Yingluck’s Pheu Thai supporters would accept any such agreement despite the weeks of protest that have enveloped central Bankok. Despite some talk of splits in the rural Red Shirt followers over the fact that the amnesty bill ignored them, Pheu Thai retains the weight of 15 million voters and so far neither the military nor the palace have made any overt moves that would show they side with the Bangkok elites in their effort to rid the country of the Thaksin family.

In any case, the talks bring up a similar scenario which unfolded after a bloody crackdown claimed more than 50 lives in May 1992 after mass protests called for the overthrow of what was then a military-led government.

In 1992, the king intervened to force a settlement that eventually led to a new constitution in 1997 and elections. It seems unlikely the king would play an active role again, given his advanced age and frail condition.

“The palace and the military will back whoever wins,” said a source in Bangkok.

It was that 1997 reform constitution that paved the way for the billionaire Thaksin to form a powerful political party and to be elected prime minister in 2001. Since that time, parties associated with him have never lost an election, largely because of his populist appeal in the poorer North and Northeast where various agriculture and rural finance schemes have been wildly popular.

Supporters of the current protests insist that Thaksin bribed and cheated his way into power and that his permanent removal from the political scene is a precondition for breaking Thailand’s long political impasse.

“Yingluck is a liar and just a nominee for her brother,” said one well-connected protest supporter. “She should leave the country.” Her followers, however, say the 46-year-old prime minister has played an astute role with both Thailand’s military and the palace, carving out a political space of her own that supplements her brother’s.

One possible concession from the protesters’ side would be that protest leader Suthep would step aside from any active role in an interim government.

“He is already finished,” said one analyst. “Suthep is just good for leading the protests.”

Suthep, a former Democrat deputy prime minister in the unelected government that preceded Yingluck, had earlier said he would head a council that would lead the country through a period of unspecified reform before eventual elections.

Thaksin is in self-imposed exile in Dubai to evade a two-year prison sentence for corruption. The current unrest was kicked off several weeks ago when the government forced through parliament an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to come home and thousands of unrelated corruption cases to go unprosecuted.

While the bill was withdrawn, it was a serious political miscalculation that gave Thaksin’s virulent opponents the opportunity they had been looking for to take to the streets.

The protests have gone on since October 31, with mostly middle-class demonstrators occupying government buildings and forcing Yingluck to call for a snap election, currently scheduled for February.

Yingluck has said repeatedly she will not step down before a new election is held. The opposition Democratic Party is to meet Saturday to decide if it will contest the elections.

Thursday’s protests were typical of the scene as well-heeled Thais purchased flags, necklaces and whistles adorned with the national colors of red, white and blue from street vendors to join in the rallies. Passengers coming out of the Asoke rail station eagerly joined in, buying paraphernalia and waving to protesters down below.

The crowd was good-natured and laughed heartily as speakers assailed Yingluck, sometimes speaking in coarse terms about her alleged sexual appetites.