The End for Thailand’s Abhisit?

The full scale of Thailand’s slow implosion from its deep and protracted political conflict is revealed in Bangkok’s current collapse. That it again happened at a time when Thais traditionally come together to celebrate the Songkrang New Year festival underscores the futility of attempts at compromise.

At the Klang General Hospital where I was soon after the violence erupted on Saturday evening, body after body was brought in, a few draped in the Thai flag. One victim had his head blown off. A medic who held his mushy brains in a plastic bag followed the body as it was wheeled into the emergency room.

Dr. Pijaya Nagavajara, the director of the hospital, said: “The first dead case was around 7 pm. Severe head injury. Fractured skull that exposed the brains. And the patient was dead before arrival. After that we saw many gunshot wounds. Rubber bullets and real bullets. The severe head injury cases could be due to being hit by a hard object or high velocity.

“I expected (to see) rubber bullets but I don’t know why there were real bullets,” Nagavaraja said.

The Thai government and the Red Shirts who represent Thailand’s disenfranchised rural grassroots (and deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) have both been insincere and unable to break the country’s stalemate over whether new elections should be held to return the mandate to the people. Thailand now has little choice but to take that step.

The alternatives are not attractive: further bloodshed, another military coup (Thailand has had 18) though the security forces are in disarray, or royal intervention. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, however, is frail and has been hospitalized since September.

New elections will not solve Thailand’s complex problems but they would go a long way to cool temperatures in a country that has also been burning under an unusual spell of drought. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva has got to go, and the sooner the better for the mess that he has wrought. Moreover, a caretaker leader to manage the nation’s affairs in the interim is not without precedent in Thai history. In times of crisis, leaders emerge and Thailand is not short of moderate, respected and competent figures.

Abhisit’s establishment defenders argue he should be given credit for allowing the Red Shirts to exercise their basic right of assembly even though militants within their ranks tried during last year’s melee in Pattaya to lynch him. They say he did not use force until he absolutely had to enforce the law and prevent Thailand’s rapid slide into a failed state.

They say the question of Abhisit’s legitimacy – a sore point with the Red Shirts who view him as a military appointee – is overblown. Under Thailand ’s parliamentary democracy, Abhisit’s defenders say he is as legitimate as George W. Bush was following his disputed 2000 victory in the US because the rules of the game have to be respected (as if Thailand had rules).

They note that even Britain’s Gordon Brown has faced similar pressures to quit, Brown called for elections when it was appropriate as was his prerogative. Abhisit, they add, is a professional politician who has been elected to parliament many times in previous elections. Abhisit, now 46, has been in politics since he was 27.

And yet Abhisit has to take responsibility for the bloodbath, the worst violence in two decades. Anyone who has lived here and knows Thailand and its famed hospitality will tell you the country has been abnormal even since the Yellow Shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy or PAD seized the international airport in 2008, propelling Abhisit into power. Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, was no role model either when he was in power but the Thai elite has been in a dogged state of denial about the new Thailand, that is until the takeover of their favorite shopping belt last week opened their eyes to the masses who want their voices heard and their votes to count.

For example, two days before a top court in Bangkok was scheduled to hand down a controversial verdict on the fugitive Thaksin and his assets that the state has now seized, a Thai state television channel beamed prime-time pictures of Abhisit displaying his Government House office at a time when most Thais hunkered down in their homes fearing anarchy. Abhisit gamely posed for the camera.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn claimed many Thais want to see the prime minister’s office, which they’ve never had a chance to see before. The disconnect between the official perception of a looming threat by the Red Shirts and reality was telling.

Apirak Wanasathop, an independent consultant who witnessed the Oct. 14, 1973 riots led by students and the urban middle class, insists the Thai political environment is now much more developed. “The base is different and the masses are more mature. (These protestors) are not just from the rural areas but they are also workers and Internet users in the city,” he said. Apirak reckons if the Red Shirts are forced to go underground, the situation will get worse. Only international pressure, he says, will make Abhisit resign.

Suranand Vejajjiva, Abhisit’s cousin who served in the Thaksin administration, says politics in Thailand will never be the same again, something he says his cousin fails to grasp. Many analysts discuss Thai politics in terms of before and after the current king. And the first major salvo has been fired in Thailand ’s anguished struggle with succession issues that ultimately underpin the conflict.

Most of all, Abhisit has to go. It was his Democrat Party that boycotted the 2006 snap polls called by Thaksin, paving the way for the coup. Draconian lese majeste laws in the country have been applied arbitrarily under Abhisit’s reign just as emergency powers allow the military too much discretionary power. The result is clear to see.

Haseenah Koyakutty is a freelance Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok.