Both sides must give peace a chance
On Wednesday the country narrowly missed a confrontation -- quite possibly violent -- between groups of people with different stances when it comes to the monarchy. But there are no sighs of relief -- just yet.
After the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) made its presence known in 2006, followed by the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in 2013-2014, we are now witnessing, again, the fully fledged divide involving the yellow and red shirts who are mobilising their followers in force. Wednesday's showdown is only the beginning.
Suthep Thaugsuban, a PDRC key man, who vowed to turn his back on politics and all kinds of rallies after the country's last shutdown, broke his promise. But don't be surprised; the veteran politician did that before when he formed the Action Coalition for Thailand Party -- now a coalition partner.
In fact, most of the PDRC leaders made a comeback in the public arena, in different roles. Warong Dechkitvigrom now leads the far-right Thai Pakdee Group. Suwit Thongprasert, the former Phra Buddha Isra, who turned up with his Or Noi temple followers, were located near the Royal Plaza, a restricted area. Santi Asok sect leader Samana Pothirak had a role in mobilising the masses. All pledged allegiance to the monarchy.
In the anti-dictatorship group, which renamed itself as Khana Ratsadorn, there were key figures, namely human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, Parit Chewarak, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, who led the protesters to march from Democracy Monument -- which they occupied earlier in the day -- to Government House later.
Some speakers associated themselves with the UDD. Mr Arnon sarcastically challenged analysts who previously anticipated that the number of red-shirt members would not be so big as a result of the recent restructuring of the Pheu Thai Party. Besides, the Khana Ratsadorn refused to drop reform of the monarchy from its demands, and also stuck to its political demands, ie the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and charter amendment, even when some demonstrators may have wanted to distance themselves from the rally, possibly for fear of being slapped with the draconian lese majeste law.
The day before Wednesday a group of protest leaders, including Jatupat Boonpatararaksa, was rounded up and moved from the protest site at the Democracy Monument, shortly before the royal motorcade. The Khana Ratsadorn leaders' lack of experience in handling a large-scale rally movement arguably increased the risk of clashes. Skirmishes were reported between the two sides, with a few injuries.
We must ask the authorities why they placed the two groups so close together. What if they had failed to restrain the clashes? The outcome would have been tragic, especially as some yellow-shirt leaders tried to incite hatred of their "enemies". They must not do this again. Let's hope both sides are satisfied with a symbolic victory, having had the chance to flex their muscles and make their statements.
The issue now is how to settle the differences over such an extremely sensitive issue, avoiding sensationalising the matter and intensifying hatred; how do we find ways to lead the country out of deadlock, without losses? This is a goal that every party, the government, as well as anti-dictatorship protesters, must consider, and do whatever they can to narrow the differences or come to a compromise.
The prime minister must immediately abandon his delay tactics in amending the charter, and do whatever he can to ensure that amendment proceeds. He must do more to foster reconciliation, as he promised right after the coup. We must not allow the prime minister to forget this important task, nor allow authorities or people close to the government to use dirty tactics while they demonise those with different opinions through disinformation.
At the same time, the Khana Ratsadorn group may find it necessary to revise its goals, perhaps starting with the revision of Section 112 in order that it will not be abused in any way. Reform of the monarchy cannot be completed overnight.
On top of that, all parties must value peace, and give it a chance. But before this, no matter what happens, the army must stay out of it.
Editorial page Editor
Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.