There has been one big positive to emerge from Thailand’s recent years of political conflict. There is now something approaching a national consensus that violent repression of protest action is unacceptable. There have been exceptions, but the passionate debate that those exceptions generated points to a shift in the political morality of managing dissent.
This puts Abhisit in an extraordinarily difficult position. He has formidable legal powers at his disposal. The State of Emergency decree provides extraordinary powers of arrest, detention, search, seizure, expulsion and prohibition. But I suspect that both he and the security forces he has mobilised in Bangkok lack the will to enforce these powers. Abhisit’s credibility rests on the impression that he has brought a semblance of stability to Thailand in turbulent times. This impression will evaporate if a crackdown on the red shirts results in violence. He is young enough to take a much longer term view. For its part, the army may well be reluctant to erode its own political capital by implementing repressive action that will only temporarily prolong the life of a terminally weak government. Both the government and the security forces have pragmatic reasons to respect the new principle of non-violence.
Thailand’s new consensus also places responsibilities on the protesters. In late 2008 I was vocal in my condemnation of the extreme provocation practiced by the anti-democratic yellow shirts. I have had much less to say about the tactics of the reds. So far, I think the reds have managed this round of protest activity in a way that is broadly consistent with the new rules of the game. Their goal – a national election – is honourable. But taking advantage of the government’s non-violent response is a high risk strategy and it risks slipping from legitimate protest to provocation. The incursion into Parliament was a mistake that will give heart to the hardliners who yearn for a return to a more muscular era of repression.
The current round of political turmoil in Thailand is moving towards an endgame. It is an endgame with a very crowded board. If I am right about the new rule of non-violence, and if the reds don’t push their pieces too recklessly, further negotiations and some compromise on an election date is the most likely outcome. If I am wrong, the consequences could be very unfortunate indeed.