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'Impossible' demands will stall the govt-protester negotiations

Under the Constitution, the Election Commission (EC) isn't supposed to play the role of "honest broker". Its task is to organise elections and to ensure that they are held in a free and fair manner.

But the political conflict has rendered its assignment almost impossible. That's why it has offered an extra service. At least one prominent EC member has stepped out to serve as the "facilitator" of negotiations between the two sides.

Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, one of the five EC members, was coordinating the first round of talks between representatives from the two warring parties last week. It didn't bring about any conclusive result but it didn't end in disaster either. Under such an acrimonious atmosphere, that in itself is a positive sign.

Then came the unexpected announcement by Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary general of the protesting People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), that the Bangkok shutdown campaign was coming to an end with the closure of the four rally sites, leaving Lumpini Park as the only anti-government rally location. Somchai immediately said the move could help improve the chance of success for further negotiations.

Some of Premier Yingluck Shinawatra's senior aides immediately interpreted the move as a retreat on the part of the PDRC, pointing to the thinning of crowds at those sites and Bangkokians' supposed frustration with the traffic jams caused by the anti-government protest.

In fact, one of the premier's lieutenants has said the anti-government rally sites were being closed because attendance had declined significantly and financial support for the protesters was dwindling. The caretaker government may also see Suthep's announcement as a sign of retreat - with some of the protesters growing weary of the prolonged vigil, and international pressure for negotiations growing.

But Suthep took pains to declare that the closure of the four sites was a tactical move, not a strategic retreat. "We are not in retreat by any means. We are simply regrouping. In fact, our campaign will get even stronger in putting pressure on all businesses related to the Shinawatra family," he said. Some of Suthep's aides have admitted that the decision to centralise the rally to only one site stemmed from a security issue - to prevent further bomb attacks against protest sites which had caused deaths and injuries in the past few weeks.

Nobody has publicly asked Somchai to broker the negotiations. But he has taken it upon himself to get the two sides to talk because without a political settlement, the EC's task cannot be undertaken. At least 28 constituencies have registered no candidates - as a result of disruption by the protesters - and if the trend continues, the new Parliament cannot be convened and a new prime minister be named. The Constitution requires the confirmation of at least 95 per cent of the total number of MPs for a new Parliament to be installed.

Somchai now says that the PDRC's latest move could boost the chance of success of the talks but that the caretaker government should not make the mistake of reading it as a weakening of PDRC's position or else that could derail the negotiation process.

Somchai says he will try to organise fresh talks with more participants this week, promising to invite the "four most important people" to the new round of talks.

It's not clear who the "four most important persons" are but in the end, a negotiated settlement can only be reached if former premier Thaksin Shinawatra is convinced that he cannot win this battle unless he comes up with concessions acceptable to those who have protested against the so-called Thaksin regime.

Suthep has been talking about challenging Yingluck to a "one-on-one" meeting that is broadcast live on TV. But he knows - and everybody else in the country knows - that she can't state her case without getting her brother's endorsement.

Publicly, Yingluck has come up with some specific conditions: Call off the protest rally and get on with the elections.

Suthep's conditions are equally brief and clear: Yingluck must resign to pave the way for the installation of a "non-partisan" government in which the ruling party plays no part.

These aren't "impossible" conditions. In fact, if those were really the only terms on both sides, the talks could have gone quite far already. But left unsaid - though well-known to most observers - are the demands that Thaksin wants his seized assets back and an amnesty to clear all the corruption cases against him. Yingluck also obviously wants cases against her government pending in the Constitutional Court and Anti-Corruption Commission thrown out if a deal is to be struck with the PDRC.

But nobody - not the protest leader, not the EC, not the Army, not the courts of justice - can promise or deliver on those conditions. While political compromises may be discussed, the judicial process and independent agencies aren't "negotiable".

And if the caretaker government is serious about sticking to "democracy" and the "rule of law", then it should revise its list of demands, get the political issues settled and accept the sanctity of the judicial process as part of the crucial checks and balances of the three branches of power: legislative, executive and judicial.

Once Thaksin or Yingluck publicly disown those "impossible" demands, the drawn-out crisis could be over in a few days.


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