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'Bizarre' truce without real reform agenda offers no political solution

CNN's news anchor described Tuesday's turn of events in the Bangkok protest as "bizarre", after the channel's American reporter in the Thai capital had explained how the confrontation had unexpectedly transformed into a scene of hugs and handshakes.

It was more like a "family picnic", another foreign correspondent said. Thai reporters admitted they too were puzzled over the sudden U-turn. Political pundits were quick to point out that it was too good to be true - it was nothing more than a ruse to lure the other side into a trap.

First there was supposed to be a "deal" between Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, brokered by the chiefs of the armed forces. But then it turned out that there was no deal after all, with Suthep taking to the stage to declare that the "war" was far from over.

Yingluck herself went public to state that "all doors are open" for more talks, but made it clear that Suthep's demand for a "people's assembly" could not be met under current constitutional provisions. She sounded conciliatory, though, asking for ideas and solutions "that could bring the country back to normalcy".

The premier even suggested that she would not be an "obstacle" to any solution that could save the country from turmoil. That ambiguous statement prompted some foreign news agencies to report that the Thai PM was offering to resign - an interpretation that was promptly shot down.

To all intents and purposes, that wasn't part of the "deal", because there was no "deal" in the first place. A few hours after Yingluck fielded questions from reporters, Pheu Thai's nominal leader Jarupong Ruangsuwan, also Interior minister, went on TV to say the prime minister wasn't going to resign. Nor would she dissolve the House to call a new election. In other words, despite the "tactical move" to let protesters into Metropolitan Police Headquarters and Government House, both sides were still poles apart from a settlement.

It will be an uneasy truce, with Yingluck hoping that Suthep can be detained now that the court has endorsed a police request for his arrest, and Suthep declaring a shaky "victory" for the time being. The political battle will resume soon after celebrations for His Majesty's birthday today.

Both sides are claiming the upper hand. Yingluck, after finally realising that public anger at her government and the ruling party is not merely ignorant people "imagining things", says she will invite academics to offer ideas on how the political stalemate can be broken. She insists she is willing to listen to "all parties concerned".

Suthep charges that the PM is simply buying time, waiting for the 109 former pro-government MPs to return to the political arena after a five-year ban. He is trying desperately to convince the rest of the country that his proposed "people's assembly" is for real and that the list of people to be named to the body would be made public soon. The "assembly", which would be tasked with the responsibility of appointing a new interim prime minister, won't include politicians. The ambiguity of his concept and the doubt cast over the legitimacy of such a move have clearly weakened his claim to be "returning the power to the people".

The military leaders who brokered the truce remain ambivalent over their exact role in the political process. Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has warned against dragging the military into this political quagmire. Both Yingluck and Suthep have tried to create the impression that the army is on their side.

Suthep claims that the army chief told him the military is "on the side of the country" - vague enough for both sides to create an impression that they enjoy the loyalty of the top brass.

Yingluck's aides say the PM was encouraged by the army chief's pledge that a coup is not an option, whatever happens.

What, then, is the most likely scenario when the truce expires in the next 24 hours?

Yingluck (read Thaksin) might think that once Suthep is out of the picture one way or the other, things will get back to normal. That isn't going to be the case. With or without Suthep, the government's credibility has taken a severe beating. Dissolving the House and calling a fresh election might reduce the political tension to a certain extent, but unless the "rules of the game" - the Constitution and other related laws - are amended in such a way that elections are free and fair, that corruption in high places is seriously tackled and that so-called "elements of the Thaksin regime" are neutralised, Pheu Thai's majority in the House will not guarantee peace and stability.

Serious suggestions have been put forward for a non-political "interim administration" to oversee the amending of laws and regulations so as to guarantee proper checks and balances against the so-called "tyranny of the majority" and to put an end to "money politics" before a new election is called.

Some academics have proposed that Yingluck should offer to excuse herself from serving as the interim premier during the transition so as to convince the public that she is serious about pursuing the "national reform" she has been publicly advocating.

The chances of these suggestions being accepted by Thaksin and Yingluck are slim. But unless they come up with a concrete concession in the form of working with a "transition body", their hope of returning to "business as usual" will remain a pipe dream.

Only one week ago, a House dissolution might have sufficed to defuse the political time bomb. Now, the situation has gone far beyond that. Even if Yingluck quits or calls a snap election, the battle cry for real reform will be here to stay.


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