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Protests, violence the norm in Thai politics?

Updated On: Jul 29, 2010
Bangkok bomb blast, by-election a sign of things to come
 
The bomb that went off in Bangkok after Sunday's by-election echoed the mass violence of April and May. Weeks have passed since the Red Shirt protesters were cleared from the city centre by the military, and during my visit at the weekend, life seems to have returned to normal, on the face of it. Shops and restaurants are busy with summer sales and a fast-growing economy. 
 
But the burnt-out remains of Central World shopping complex, targeted by arsonists in May, tell us repairs and rebuilding are much needed. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who oversaw the military operation to restore order, has outlined steps for reconciliation and appointed an independent committee to propose reform. 
 
Yet it seems not enough is being done quickly enough, especially about the events of May when nearly 90 people were killed. Emergency laws have been relaxed somewhat but remain in place for the city and many provinces. 
 
Some believe Mr Abhisit wants to pursue reconciliation; other actors feel strengthened by post-May events and prefer the status quo. Former Premier Anand Panyarachun, who heads the reform committee, has called for the emergency to be lifted. Sunday's explosion, however, will be taken by others as evidence of the need to continue with enhanced security measures. Instead of reconciliation, the path forward veers more towards political competition. 
 
The weekend's by-election was for Bangkok constituency 6, which covers a considerable part of the sprawling capital. The ruling Democrat party's candidate, Panich Vikitsreth, is expected to win by about 9 per cent of the 178,000 votes cast, but the result is significant in showing up post-violence sentiments. 
 
For one, the margin is comfortable rather than overwhelming - especially when we consider that the opposition Puea Thai Party candidate was prominent in the anti-government protests and was under arrest during the campaign. Turnout was lower than expected, at only some 50 per cent of eligible voters: Many in Bangkok are exhausted by the political fight. 
 
Even moderate opposition leaders have distanced themselves from the red-shirt protests. The deputy leader of the Pheu Thai party, Dr Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, resigned. A former Thai Rak Thai Party strategist and trade representative under Thaksin, he now openly calls for factions to come together for the good of the country.
 
Others, however, appear determined to give no quarter. The Red Shirts have planned small-scale demonstrations and rumours circulate that larger protests may return next month. The government's likely response will be to enforce security strictly. 
 
Mass protests and violence, as the bomb shows, may be becoming the norm in Thai politics. If this is to be avoided, the incumbent powers will need to move ahead with reconciliation efforts and measure out justice in a more even-handed manner.
 
This week sees the beginning of the Buddhist lent, Wan Khao Phansa. In this predominately Buddhist society, there are those appalled by the bloodshed and loss of life in May, and wish an end to desire and conflict. But there are others who will continue to fight for power, whether by politics or protests.
 
I visited Bangkok to see what has happened since May. Instead, I may have glimpsed what else might come in the months ahead.