The recent report by the International Crisis Group on Bridging Thailand’s Deep Divide is available here. This is the report’s conclusion:
Overthrowing a democratically elected – albeit increasingly autocratic – government in a bloodless military coup was a misstep that plunged Thailand into violent conflict and a potentially vicious cycle of confrontation. What began as a tussle between key figures in the royalist establishment and a populist politician has widened to fracture institutions, divide friends and families as well as produce the most deadly clashes between demonstrators and the government in modern Thai history. With hindsight, it would have been better for Thai society if opposition to Thaksin’s corrupt administration had adhered to democratic principles and stayed inside the bounds of constitutional rule. To avoid more bloodshed, the country needs to reverse this trend. It could start by openly examining recent events, building a new political consensus about how the country should be governed, fixing the known flaws in its political system, and reaffirming its commitment to democracy.
It is simplistic for the government to think that the Red Shirt movement is about one man who lives in comfortable exile abroad. Undoubtedly, Thaksin has been trying to use the mass movement to redress his own deep personal grievances with the establishment, but it is not solely under his absolute control. The movement is pulled in various directions and disunity among the key leaders is obvious. Nor can the leadership make the rank-and-file adhere to their proclaimed non-violent principles. The infiltration of armed elements into a mostly peaceful movement with genuine political aims has undermined its legitimacy.
At the height of the confrontation in May, it was unfortunate that negotiations to end the stand-off failed. There was another option at this point; more time could have been spent to find a way out that put lives of citizens first. The government’s perception that the demonstrations became a security and not political problem that needed to be cleared from the streets by force led to the unnecessary deaths of dozen of civilians, including medical and rescue workers. Legitimate concerns about law and order should have been balanced against respect for political rights. The government’s impatience has only deepened the divide that will complicate future efforts to find a solution to end the current polarisation. As the repressive emergency law lingers, Thailand’s democracy continues to be quietly undermined.
The ruling royalist establishment cannot unilaterally push forward its “road map” to national reconciliation while simultaneously suppressing the Red Shirts’ dissenting voices. This plan will be seen as merely a ploy to maintain their dominance and neutralise opponents. Recociliation cannot take place when, in the name of maintaining peace, the rights of citizens are infringed on a daily basis with bans on demonstrations, restrictions on media, and the detention of suspects without charge. The emergency decree imposed on one third of the country should be immediately lifted as it is counterproductive if reconciliation is the goal. Frightened and resentful, the Red Shirts may become more militant if they are denied the opportunity of peaceful dissent.
If Thailand is to move away from recent violence, consolidate a new political consensus, and restore democracy, it will need to hold elections sooner rather than later. After such a divisive period in Thai history, those in power will need to refresh their mandate. Any reconciliation plan or reform agenda will also need popular endorsement to succeed. If all sides are involved in such efforts, then they could work together to minimise election violence and, more importantly, commit to supporting the result and giving the new government a chance to govern without rancour and instability. It will be an important test for Thailand to prove; that is heading away from this violent moment or entrenching long-term instability with all its deadly consequences.