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If negotiations start, what will be on the agenda?

The caretaker prime minister seems determined to stay the course. The protest leader insists he won't negotiate with the premier. There is no "win-win" solution, he claims. It's either victory or defeat for the movement bent on overthrowing the "Thaksin regime".

Those are the public statements from both Yingluck Shinawatra and Suthep Thaugsuban. Behind the scenes, "third parties" have been proposing negotiations to reach a settlement. Compromise isn't possible as long as both sides are convinced that they can outmanoeuvre the other side. As things stand now, neither side can get off the tiger's back without serious injury.

Thaksin himself has floated a new balloon, through his legal adviser Noppadon Pattana. He was quoted, not for the first time, as saying: "The conflict must be settled at the negotiation table." But then the fugitive ex-premier had also stated unequivocally that he would never accept defeat. You will have to read between the lines, as always.

Yingluck's main condition is that Suthep put an end to the protest and proceed with the election. Suthep's main bargaining point is that Yingluck must quit and that a "people's government headed by a neutral prime minister" be set up along with a "people's assembly" to draw up the country's reform agenda. He has yet to come up with a clear blueprint as to how these new bodies' members would be picked.

Suthep was quoted as saying that Yingluck has proposed that if she steps down, she must decide who the "neutral premier" is. That, of course, is no concession.

Behind-the-scenes efforts to strike a deal for both sides have not been firmed up. But some "honest brokers" have tried to get both sides to start the process of negotiations. Suthep himself may have publicly opposed any compromise talks, but some of his lieutenants have suggested that negotiations haven't been ruled out.

Since no negotiations can be kicked off without the warring parties agreeing that neither side can win every demand, the unofficial negotiators have proposed some scenarios that could help in the "confidence-building" process.

One scenario is for Yingluck to agree to step down in exchange for Suthep's promise to call off the protest. That should be followed by the formation of a "non-partisan interim government" led by a respected personality with no political affiliation. The provisional government will operate with a specific timeline alongside a "national assembly" that represents people from all walks of life to draw up a new constitution and set the national reform agenda.

While the interim administration tends to routine tasks to get the government up and running again, the assembly will be tasked with the responsibility of rewriting the charter and setting down a new set of ground rules to ensure a free and fair general election that should be called within a year to 18 months, with the proviso that the opposition Democrat Party will end its boycott of the election and return to the ballot-box process.

The more complicated part of the negotiations would be demands on the protesters' side that no amnesty must be issued for Thaksin and his family members over court cases that are in the judicial pipeline. Thaksin, naturally, would demand that the compromise must include a provision that he considers "fair" to him, and that judicial actions he considers "unfair" to him must be declared null and void, even retrospectively.

Those "almost impossible" conditions from both sides will prove to be the most tricky and could undermine the talks from the outset. But once the protagonists realise their only way out of this mess is through negotiations and that negotiations mean neither side wins 100 per cent of its demands, some practical solutions will have to be found.

The main reason talks haven't started in any serious manner is that both sides believe they can outlast the other. Yingluck believes the protest movement will wear itself out and that Suthep's campaign isn't sustainable. Suthep is banking on the growing "inevitability" of the downfall of the Yingluck government because of the rice-pledging scandal, the farmers' protest and the expected indictment of Yingluck by the Anti-Corruption Commission over the rice controversy.

As long as it is seen that only the weaker party in a conflict would enter into negotiations, the possibility of a peaceful settlement remains remote. The next two weeks will decide whether serious negotiations can begin. The "zero-sum game" scenario is too risky to ponder because that would be preceded by violence. And that shouldn't be an option in any attempt to achieve a "breakthrough" in this drawn-out, expensive and disastrous conflict.


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