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Bangkok at another crossroads

Publication Date : 02-03-2014


Despite everything that has happened, including violence and tragic deaths, there is still no sign of a solution.

Eric “Slowhand” Clapton’s scheduled performance on Sunday night at Bangkok’s Impact Arena has been cancelled, as yet another indication of the city’s growing political turmoil.

The guitar icon’s “Live in Bangkok 2014” event was supposed to be part of his final world tour. Instead, refunds are now being handed out to fans of the music legend.

The increasing breadth and depth of Bangkok’s political crisis have other no less telling and decisive indicators. Groups and individuals actively pushing to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, or stubbornly pressing to keep her in office, are hurtling towards a precipice. Blood has already been spilt with machine guns and grenades, with the threat of worse to come in an ultimate showdown.

It is often said that despite the military coups and other jolts to Thailand’s body politic, life and business carry on as usual. But although street protests since November have affected only a few roads in Bangkok, such easy-going assumptions could soon change drastically.

The raucous, sometimes violent protests have been gathering momentum against a government seen to be manipulated by former premier and convicted fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra. In recent days, that momentum against younger sister Yingluck’s government has vividly approached critical mass.

The chief reason is what amounts to tectonic shifts in the sentiments, perceptions and ultimately loyalties of key groups in society. Although these shifts are still not immediate “wins” for the government’s opponents, they signal a worrying trend for the Pheu Thai party-led governing coalition.

Not so very long ago, certain groups and institutions could be said to be sympathetic to the Shinawatra camp despite a supposed neutrality. These include the police, the National Counter-Corruption Commission (NCCC), the rice-farming community in the northern provinces and banks.

Thaksin had been a policeman before he went into business. His years in the force saw him cultivating senior commanders such that while the military was identified with his opponents, the police was seen as Thaksin-friendly.

However, that perception may be losing steam in some quarters lately. With civil order in public places becoming a more prominent priority, elements in the force more amenable to non-partisanship are coming to the fore.

The NCCC has also had the image, if not also the substance, of being sympathetic to the Shinawatras. Typically the Pheu Thai government or its opponents would accuse the NCCC of being biased when it acts against those in one camp or the other.

In a move that surprised some, the NCCC last Tuesday alleged that Yingluck had acted improperly in the government’s rice subsidy scheme. Not only is the scheme a pillar of Pheu Thai support, the NCCC charge made Yingluck liable to impeachment.

Many in the rice-farming community in the north, Thaksin’s political stronghold, have also been alienated by the government’ failure to honour its pledge of paying them handsomely for their produce.

While it was once easy to see these farmers and Thaksin’s Red Shirt supporters as virtually being one and the same, that no longer applies. Many of these farmers have descended on Bangkok to join anti-government demonstrators.

Related to this Shinawatra meltdown is the reduced hospitability of banks. While the banking community had once readily extended credits to operations in the family name, particularly with a Shinawatra in office as a fellow corporate chief, that, too, has changed.

So the government’s cash flow has become a problem, resulting in the inability to pay off the farmers as promised. The banks are being sticky, while the contract to sell the rice to China has fallen apart after Beijing balked at the implications of the corruption probe.

As hard-nosed businesses, banks are particularly edgy when doubts about the government’s future begin to swirl.

Some of the partisan sympathies of these institutions seem to have evaporated, if only from an infusion of impartiality. But it is enough for the incumbents to lose pivotal support, for their opponents to leverage on that to begin gaining the upper hand.

The result is a government effectively under siege, or at least with reasons for feeling so. Its opponents among the protesters have also run out of ideas, having failed to unseat the government despite all their hopes, determination and efforts.

In the depths of such frustration, violence has moved up a notch or two. Both military-grade weapons and homemade bombs and firearms have now killed several men, women and children. As things teeter towards the edge, foreign experts in conflict resolution have flown into town to give their two cents’ worth on what everyone should do. If only anyone engaged in the political fighting is doing any listening.

Among the recommendations aired is the need for dialogue. But even as that thought was uttered, representatives from the government and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest movement concluded round one of their secret talks. Not that it meant anything on the streets or in the corridors of power, however. The delegates on both sides lacked the authority to make any real deals.

The upside is that at least there had been some talking. The downside and everything else amounted to not knowing where the chat could now go, if anywhere, including whether there would be a round two.

As things stand, little room exists for thinking that peace would break out anytime soon – or at all. Both sides are not only stuck with their insistent demands, they seem to have enlarged them.

The Yingluck government reportedly still wants to have an amnesty for Thaksin to ensure his “safe” return, immune from his jail conviction and further prosecution and persecution. Its shopping list would also include freely doing business, and politics, as usual.

However, these two objectives are what the PDRC has dedicated itself against. It wants the removal of the Prime Minister and all her Cabinet ministers on corruption charges, plus a ban on all Shinawatras from holding high public office.

Those objectives are similarly unacceptable to the government, and barely if at all realisable. For a start, not only must the entire Cabinet be corrupt, which the PDRC only presumes, there also needs to be sufficient evidence of corruption applicable in a court to charge and convict them on.

Both sides are still locked in rhetorical declarations and unsubstantiated claims, when the solutions they need have to go well beyond these.

Meanwhile, foreign diplomatic missions in Bangkok will continue to issue travel advisories against casual visits, tourism figures will fall further and the economy generally will remain uninspiring.

Bangkok is at another crossroads, with everything to play for and to lose. Enlightened leadership is needed, but the leaders are too busy fighting each other to bother with being enlightened. As Clapton would say (in the song Crossroads), “And I’m standing at the crossroads, believe I’m sinking down.”


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