Rival camps on deadly collision course
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Rival camps on deadly collision course

For the last few days I’ve visited the rally sites of rival camps in the political crisis. At both, protesters have told me they are willing to die for their cause.

Protesters from both sides of the political divide are taking the streets to answer their leaders’ war cries in a last-ditch effort to triumph amid fears of political violence ahead.

On Sunday, I visited the United Front for Democracy against Democracy (UDD) site in Phutthamonthon district about 30km from central Bangkok.

Bu is one of many farmers from the Northeast who have joined the protest to protect the pro-Thaksin caretaker government, after Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office last week by the Constitutional Court, along with a third of her cabinet.

Proving they are as loyal to monarchy as the yellow shirts is the flourishing trade in T-shirts that proclaim “we love the Crown Prince”, or “We love 904”, a reference to the Crown Prince’s radio signature.

Bu and others have joined the protest on rotation, expecting to stay for a week — to be replaced by others she knows who are already on standby from her province.

On Monday evening from the protest stage a former lecturer from Chulalongkorn University, claiming to have lost her job due to her political activities, read a poem by recently murdered '‘people’s poet'’ Kamol Duangphasuk.

He was an advocate of reform of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which punishes lese majeste offences. While some red shirts believe his death was at the hands of an ultra-royalist underground movement, other observers say the poet was part of an underground armed red-shirt element and his death was "more complicated".

All of this is dreadful speculation of course, and the poet’s death sums up the difficulty of being certain about anything in this crisis.

The protesters will stay put as long as the caretaker government faces the threat of forced removal. Should a challenger interim government emerge out of initiatives by informal meetings of the Senate that commenced on Monday, it can be expected the protesters' ranks will swell into the hundreds of thousands and move en masse into central Bangkok to protect the caretaker government.

Should this occur Thailand will possess two governments claiming legitimacy and demanding loyalty from state agencies.

At the rival People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and related protest sites I came across a sentiment that I can only describe as smug expectation that victory will be theirs.

On Sunday protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was allowed to set up office at Government House, politely flanked by soldiers. The ease of occupation bloated an already swelling smugness.

On stage he declared: “All are welcome to come and see me. I am ready now. I said I wouldn’t talk to you, but I am ready now. Come!”

On Monday evening Mr Suthep met the acting Senate president and expressed his desire for agencies of the state to appoint an interim government.

Far away at the red-shirt rally, the cry is to stop Mr Suthep’s rebellion and push forward to a new election.

As the various anti-Thaksin forces gather to pressure for the removal of yet another pro-Thaksin government, the language on the PDRC stage is both demagogic and technical.

Mr Suthep speaks of himself as the “medium” of the people (emulating Thaksin’s egotism), but at times his stage presence reminds of a lawyer explaining the various mitigations of a transgression.

His constant reference to article this and article that of the 2007 constitution on why an appointed government is constitutional are breathtakingly ingenious.

It is constitutional white noise meant to cover a brazen attempt to fell the current caretaker government by any means possible. The crowd is lured into quiet with such legalities, stirred only by talk of the “evil family”, eradicating corruption and the Thaksin regime, and folksy idioms I cannot fully grasp.

The 2007 constitution which is used by both sides to argue their respective cases is one brought into being by the anti-Thaksin 2006 coup. Despite this, it has not been able to stop the electoral preference of a majority expressing support for the side which the coup was meant to eradicate.

The constitutional upper hand is with the anti-Thaksin side, for the coup enabled strong anti-Thaksin elements to occupy key offices in the so-called independent agencies of the state and in the appointed parts of the Senate.

Despite the PDRC’s hype, the anti-Thaksin side is not a marginal minority waiting for history-as-justice to sweep it aside. It is a substantial force that must also be accommodated in any settlement to this conflict. But it needs to compromise too, and it must recognise the mandate given to successive pro-Thaksin governments since the 2006 coup.

Thailand now faces an enormous challenge of political transition. It can push through with either side prevailing — and it is not clear which side would prevail just now — but at enormous cost to peace and life.

Or it can be a transition that recognises the validity of some elements of each camp’s claim. To do that would raise the possibility of a peaceful resolution and to begin the hard work of democratising the conflict into a new social contract.

Both sides have a responsibility to seek a resolution that does not cause further loss of life to their respective rank and file — it is they who have paid the highest cost already — as rival elites go for broke.

Thailand has to step back from the brink. This would entail a recognition of the electoral mandate of the current caretaker government. A constituent assembly could be formed that accommodates a range of interests and political persuasions to establish new rules that, being agreed upon, all must be subject to, and which then are applied without prejudice.

The 2007 constitution lacks this founding legitimacy and resolving the conflict under its auspices will lead to further violence and protest or a repressive military coup.

Michael Connors teaches at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. He is the author of Democracy and National Identity in Thailand (2007).

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