Q+A: Thailand’s political crisis has no easy solutions

By Martin Petty

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – Thai “red shirt” protesters hunkered down in their fortified encampment in Bangkok’s commercial heart on Monday, braced for a possible crackdown by security forces under pressure to drive them out.

Thailand’s five-year political crisis has reached its most critical juncture and is at risk of mushrooming into civil conflict between multiple groups all hardening their stances.

The options to solve the impasse range from difficult talks between antagonistic parties to a potentially bloody crackdown.

Here are some questions and answers about the crisis:

IS THERE A CHANCE OF DIALOGUE?

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Saturday flatly rejected an offer by the protesters to resume stalled talks to end the crisis, saying they were insincere and no dialogue can be held in a climate of threats and intimidation.

However, analysts see no other way out and say Abhisit will have to talk with his opponents at some point, even if it’s through a third party or back channel. They say Abhisit wants to show he will not be pressured into dialogue and wants to have the upper hand before any bargaining takes place.

The timeframe suggested by the “red shirts” — house dissolution in 30 days with an election held 60 days after that — is unlikely to be accepted. Abhisit is also facing heavy pressure on two fronts: by moderates urging talks and by hardliners in Bangkok calling for the “red shirts” to be forcibly evicted — regardless of the potentially bloody consequences.

IS MORE VIOLENCE LIKELY?

Bangkok is gripped by tension, rumor, fear and uncompromising rhetoric. In such a climate, minor incidents can take place that could always spiral out of control.

The army and police seem incapable of ensuring security, or even working together effectively. Rival demonstrators are not fully in control of their supporters. And the motives of shadowy militants blamed for turning clashes between troops and protesters on April 10 into a bloodbath remain unknown.

Sporadic grenade attacks continue, including one near the home of a politician on Sunday night. Five grenades were launched in a Bangkok business district on Thursday, killing a pro-government protester and wounding more than 80 others, including four foreigners.

Violence has yet to hit the provinces but red shirt supporters have blockaded police and military convoys in a handful of areas the past few days, fearing they were headed to Bangkok to help in any crackdown.

CAN ABHISIT SURVIVE THE CRISIS?

He is under heavy pressure from all directions. An elections watchdog wants his party dissolved for funding irregularities. Most analysts doubt he can win a national election, if he does call a snap poll. Frustration is growing in his fragile six-party ruling coalition. And the army is always a threat to take over in coup-prone Thailand.

Political analysts, however, say Abhisit does appear to have one powerful force on his side — the royalist establishment, including the military, that is closely aligned with Thailand’s revered king. That in itself could keep him in power, though for how long remains uncertain.

Analysts and some government officials believe the “red shirts” may have tried to provoke violence to escalate the crisis and force the prime minister’s resignation. Some of his predecessors quit after military crackdowns or major unrest.

Despite his urbane nature, the British-born and Oxford-educated Abhisit is a tough fighter. He has survived unrelenting pressure since taking office in December 2008 in a parliamentary vote engineered by the army. If he was going to quit, he would probably have done so already.

IS THERE A CHANCE OF A COUP?

Thailand has suffered 24 successful or attempted coups since 1932, so it certainly cannot be ruled out. Analysts and army insiders say it is unlikely now. The royalist military wants to ensure a smooth transfer of top positions in September, and a different government could threaten that. Most believe a putsch is only likely if Abhisit indicates he might call an election some time before then.

WILL THE MILITARY CRACK DOWN ON PROTESTERS?

That is the biggest unanswered question in Bangkok. The government and army are sending mixed messages daily about whether they will forcibly evict the protesters from their sprawling encampment in a ritzy shopping district in central Bangkok. The demonstrators are prepared for an attack and say they will not budge.

The “red shirts” are sure to put up a strong fight. Even if many protesters flee, several thousand are likely to remain to resist an offensive, heightening the potential for major casualties on both sides.

Some security experts say a crackdown could be almost suicidal for the army. The protesters have sealed themselves behind huge barricades of tires and stakes, blocking roads with scores of vehicles and concrete pillars. The government believes at least 300 assault rifles, rocket-propelled or M-79 grenades are stashed around the site.

This could explain why the government and military are hesitant to carry out their strongly worded threats. The army tried to use force to evict protesters from another site in the city on April 10 that was far less fortified and failed badly.

However, Abhisit and the army know they cannot let the protesters stay there forever. Not only is the occupation hurting the economy, it is seriously denting Abhisit’s credibility.

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(Editing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Paul Tait)

Q+A: Thailand’s political crisis has no easy solutions