The Reasons for the Thai Impasse

When vats of human blood were spilled by Thailand's Red Shirt movement in the early stages of its "million man" march two months ago, it was described by some in the establishment and some analysts as a desperate cultural stunt designed to shock the authorities into taking the 150,000-strong movement seriously. The rallies did not catch on with the wider public.

But the blood-spilling tactic was also a veiled political threat. Jaran Ditapichai, a leader belonging to United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship or UDD put it this way: by staging "the biggest demonstration in Thai history," they planned to make Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva choose between "dissolution (of the House) or suppression." If suppression were to occur, Jaran told the foreign media before kicking off the UDD's campaign "there will not be elections if there is civil war."

As Bangkok convulses and the death toll mounts, did the UDD – the Red Shirts – get what it wanted all along? Bloodshed?

Today, after weeks of unadulterated violence and sporadic negotiations, both sides are far apart with diametrically opposed positions that seemingly make talks impossible. As to the UDD, the biggest question is whether Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister whose ouster eventually developed into the crisis that faces Thailand, is still in charge. Thaksin yesterday issued a formal statement asking all sides "to step back from the abyss and begin a new and genuine dialogue between the parties." It seems to have had little effect so far.

The UDD's "Commander Red" Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol or Sae Dang, a former Thai army officer allied with deposed premier Thaksin died Monday after a targeted assassination last week that triggered the latest orgy of violence. Army Chief Anupong Paochinda, Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who leads security operations, attended a separate wake for Lt. Gen. Daopong Ratanasuwan's mother Monday but the trio skipped Khattiya's wake, where throngs of people flocked to last night. The royal family has however sponsored Khattiya's funeral rites, according to local media.

"Those that called this rally cycle peaceful were suckered by the allure of Red romanticism, and forgot last April," said a source referring to the riots that broke out last year after the Red Shirts stormed an ASEAN meeting in Pattaya that left world leaders scrambling for safety. At the time, a moderate UDD leader and pious Buddhist, Veera Musikhapong, called off the protest when the capital descended into chaos. This year, Veera quit the UDD after failing to persuade hard-line elements last weekend to accept Abhisit's roadmap and November 14 elections offer, and his departure from the UDD at the eleventh hour paved the way for anarchy.

"(Seh Dang's) passing is an opportunity for the Reds to blame all violence on him and move on and out. Instead it will reveal that the majority of the purveyors of violence remain," the source added.

Chaturon Chaisang, an opposition former Deputy Prime Minister and senior Thaksin ally, however quashed any notion that the Red Shirts espoused violence. In an interview, he acknowledged the UDD lost credibility after Khattiya's capos recently stormed Chulalongkorn Hospital situated next to the protest site and when their demands kept shifting.

But Chaturon argued that the UDD's new demand for some government accountability for the April 10 violence when a disproportionate number of protestors were shot and killed was reasonable. Twenty-five people died then. The talks collapsed after the UDD suddenly demanded that Suthep, the deputy prime minister handling security, be arrested.

"The UDD was not going to pack up until there was some charge against the prime minister and Suthep. They were asking Suthep to surrender to the police but the police have no jurisdiction over the case. Suthep is a political appointee and it is up to the counter-corruption body that also handles illegal activities in Thailand to investigate Suthep. There was some confusion about the process of accountability but the UDD leaders had a point," said Chaturon, who had helped the UDD with the negotiation process but could not close the deal.

The granting of amnesty was another sticking point, according to Chaturon. In previous episodes of violence in Thailand, notably in 1973, 1979 and 1992, the granting of amnesty had leveled the playing field. The government is currently reluctant to grant blanket amnesty to the UDD leaders, instead branding them "terrorists." Government negotiator Korbsak Sabhavasu, Secretary General to Abhisit, did not want to comment on the quality of the peace talks as the crisis takes hold but a Bangkok MP allied with the government Apimongkol Sonakul explained why amnesty is today a bad idea:

"If you want the breakdown of society then you give amnesty. They know they can protest again and get amnesty. In terms of long-term building of democracy, it is the first button to the death of democracy."

"We took non-military and non-police actions (at first). We talked about cutting their supplies (in the Red Shirts' Ratchaprasong encampment). In any kind of negotiations, sometimes you have to go overboard to put pressure on them and they have to go overboard to put pressure on you in order to take a step towards each other, and that's not unusual," Apimongkol added on why both sides issued threats and ultimatums in Thai-style talks that, in the end, proved irreconcilable.

In his "Five-Point Road Map", Prime Minister Abhisit offered to dissolve the House in September, presumably after the government is able appoint army officials in an upcoming reshuffle and control the state budget, which Chaturon stressed ought to be the prerogative of the new government. This point also caused a rift amongst the UDD leadership. Some, like Veera, thought Abhisit's timeline was the most practical, others thought it insincere.

Observers note that the royalist Yellow Shirts, for all the movement's equally criminal failings – and none of its leaders have been jailed – had at least complete cohesion in the leadership ranks.

As the tit-for-tat continues, many Bangkok residents are also divided over whether the Red Shirt movement has moved beyond former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra who is on the run for a corruption conviction. Several independent analysts have consistently argued that Thaksin has unleashed socio-economic forces against Bangkok's aristocratic class that are now impossible to contain.

Apimonkol, the blue-blooded Bangkok MP, conceded that the protestors feel hard-done by when the political parties they support (linked to Thaksin) are routinely dissolved but he also best summed-up the dominant sentiment amongst many in the Bangkok elite:

"(Thaksin), the leader of the grassroots is one of the most prominent elitists in Thailand.

"If I said to you Khun Thaksin came out today and went on TV and said: 'Red protesters, please go home. It is enough damage to the country, please go home.' Do you think they would go home? I think they would. Within 20 minutes, they would be packing their bags. In the end, it is about one man's protest," Apimongkol said.