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Why Thailand needs a compromise

By Bob Hererra-Lim

Since mid-March, opposition protesters-known as the "red shirts" -- have been occupying parts of Bangkok. These anti-government demonstrations are clearly the largest and best organized ones since the 2006 "yellow shirt" rallies that led to the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the Thai media has been regularly warning of possible violence. In fact, there has already been bloodshed on the streets, albeit voluntarily.

The near-term threat, however, is exaggerated. Despite their numbers, the opposition protesters will probably not be able to force out the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The key elites in Bangkok -- the monarchy, the military, and the business community -- remain solidly aligned with Abhisit's coalition government and against the return of Thaksin or the granting of major political concessions to his allies in the opposition For Thais (PT) party. For their part, the protesters say they are unwilling to accept anything short of the dissolution of parliament and a return to an earlier constitution. There have been a few grenade attacks, but these are isolated incidents, rather than a sign of a serious and destabilizing split within the military. At the end of the day, with both sides unwilling to give in, the protesters will likely march back to their homes when their enthusiasm and funding fade.

While the status quo is likely to satisfy significant segments of Thailand's elite, it could lead to a dangerous complacency. For much of its history, Thailand's political landscape has been shaped (and re-shaped) by the competition for power among the country's political and economic elites, marked most radically by the 1932 overthrow of the monarchy. Since then, this competition has sporadically manifested in bouts of volatility, as the key players disregard democratic processes and institutions while attempting to reshape the rules -- namely the constitution -- and the bureaucracy in their favor.

The rise (and fall) of Thaksin has thrown a new ingredient into the mix, one unseen in previous episodes of instability: an outsider tapping into a popular, disaffected power base. Thaksin had the personal wealth to rival even Bangkok's established elites. In addition, the former prime minster delivered on a populist agenda that specifically helped the disaffected, marginalized rural communities who now form the bulk of the protest movement. But while the red-shirts' march has been tinged with some of Thaksin's agenda, their reasons and aspirations for rallying in Bangkok run much deeper; rallyists often rail against what they claim to be double standards that favor established Bangkok interests.

As a result, Thailand is now moving into unchartered territory. The traditional elite competition for control will be influenced or even shaped by the rise of a new popular movement anchored on grievances against a system that has marginalized large segments of the population politically, economically, and socially. While traditional alliances should be able to contain these forces in the near term, they will not be able to do so indefinitely. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country's revered monarch and the cornerstone of stability today, is sick. He has been in the hospital since September, though the details of his condition remain a guarded secret. There is a clear sense that the alliance between the monarchy, the military, and the Bangkok elites is holding together only out of respect for the ailing king and the influence of key generals in his privy council, primarily retired general Prem Tinsulanonda. The risk is that the king's death, after an extended transition, will lead to another fight for power, as competing elites attempt to fill the vacuum should his successor fritter away the monarchy's goodwill. Graft onto this the disgruntlement that has built up among the lower-income classes, and a potentially more serious confrontation, the likes of which Thailand has never seen, is possible. This would threaten not only the established order, but the stability that has become the basis for much of the investor interest in the country the past few decades.

For these reasons, the key political players in Thailand must attempt a political compromise today, while the situation is still manageable and while key power brokers are able to maintain control. Unlike previous compromises, however, this one will have to be forged at both the political and popular level, to be credible and to deliver long term stability. An attempt must be made to not only defuse the tension between Thaksin and his opponents, but to build a whole system that addresses the disenchantment that originally created Thaksin's base. These changes will run the gamut from simple constitutional fixes that remove contentious provisions in the constitution (eg, those that allow dissolution of political parties for the flimsiest of reasons) to serious system-wide reforms in the bureaucracy and the judiciary that reduce the sense of economic and political disenfranchisement among the poor. And finally, they must talk honestly and openly of topics that are the subject only of whispered conversations in Bangkok. This will be more radical than any reform tried in Thailand since 1932, but the risks of not trying are much greater.

Bob Herrera-Lim is a director in Eurasia Group's Asia practice.

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