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Beyond the red shirts

Updated On: Mar 20, 2010

Recent dramatic protests in Bangkok are but the most visible of challenges facing Abhisit's governmentby Simon Tay 05:55 AM Mar 20, 2010

Protests by the tens of thousands of Red Shirts in Bangkok have captured international attention. This is the latest episode in a multi-year political drama that started when the Thai military ousted then-Premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The pro-Thaksin Red Shirts demand that current Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva resign. While their call has been refused, this does not end matters.

Gimmicks like spilling donated blood in front of Government House have grabbed attention. While their numbers have dwindled, concerns linger that the Red Shirts might clash with the military, as they did a year ago. Underlying the protests are questions about Thaksin's continuing popularity and power, now he is in exile, convicted of corruption and stripped of almost $2 billion in assets by the court.

Uncertainties remain about the coming days. But some issues bear consideration, looking beyond the Red Shirts.

First, the Abhisit government has lasted longer and shown greater resilience than many expected. The Democrat-led coalition has many different factions - some of which once supported Thaksin - but they have so far defied predictions that they would splinter easily and early.

Prime Minister Abhisit may not be an all powerful CEO-Premier like Thaksin set himself out to be. But this is in line with many past Thai governments, dealing with different powerful interests. Mr Abhisit, too, has shown a growing influence on issues such as the selection of the police chief.

In comparison, while Thaksin remains popular in some parts of the country, especially in the north, his support and financial resources have been affected. As I write, the dwindling Red Shirt numbers substantiate doubts that they can muster a large, long term effort.

Second, while red and yellow shirt camps bicker, there is a growing number of Thais who support neither camp. They are not apathetic but non-partisan. They form a middle force, a swing factor of opinion, that both sides must reckon with.

These non-partisan Thais mostly accept the court's finding against Thaksin for corruption and abuse of power. But they would also like to see an even-handed investigation and due prosecution of other cases. Neither do they condone extreme or violent conduct by either protesters or the police and military.

The non-partisan Thais grow impatient that their country has under-performed economically in these past years. So even if they are not ardent supporters of the current government, they wish for some stability and a return to growth. Yet they also acknowledge the need to address questions of inequality and the needs of the poor.

This comes to a third factor that goes beyond the question of the Red Shirts: The demand for better governance. A current controversy, which has escaped most international notice while being prominent in the Thai media, shows this. This involves Sompien Eksomya, a police colonel who has had an outstanding record in the troubled south of the country for the past 40 years.

A Songkhla native, Col Sompien sought help from Mr Abhisit over an allegedly "unfair" denial of his request for a transfer from the strife-torn region. With only one year of service left before retirement, he had hoped for a less risky posting, especially as insurgents had put an exceptionally high price on his head.

Yet his request was never approved despite publicly asking the Prime Minister to intervene. By the time his request was considered, he had been killed by insurgents.

To many Thais, this is more than a personal tragedy. The case confirms how violence in the south which flared up under Thaksin, is now a key security concern. The colonel's death also brings into question injustice in governance and the government's willingness to take care of those who have loyally served the country.

He was posthumously promoted as general and a royally-sponsored wreath was presented at his funeral in Hat Yai district. The Prime Minister attended the funeral though the government has denied that the late colonel's transfer request was wrongfully ignored.

A sense of injustice persists.

Back in Bangkok, the Abhisit government seems likely to survive this wave of protests. In part, this is because there seems to be no alternative. Even if the Red Shirts somehow succeed in paving the way for a pro-Thaksin government, the Yellow Shirts might again come out to topple that administration.

But surviving is not succeeding. What Thailand needs is a government that not only survives but which can deliver. Vital issues of equality, the South and policies that benefit all must follow, so as to convince the non-partisan Thais. Verdicts of several pending cases, including the closure of the Suvarnabhumi Airport by the Yellow Shirts, have yet to be concluded. These will be closely watched for their fairness.

Beyond the Red Shirt protests this week, these are the challenges facing Thailand.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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