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Negotiations on the cards? Never let a good crisis go to waste

Yingluck receives warm welcome from supporters in Chiang Rai Wednesday.

Yingluck receives warm welcome from supporters in Chiang Rai Wednesday.

Quiet diplomacy" is under way to try to reach a compromise to end the ongoing crisis. But real negotiations between the caretaker government and the protesting People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) have yet to begin. Both sides claim they have the upper hand. In fact, neither side can hope to win the battle without a negotiated settlement.

An academic coordinating the "reform agenda" of various non-government organisations confirmed on radio yesterday that behind-the-scenes "mediation" has taken place, with the emphasis on stopping political violence, launching the negotiation process and agreeing on the all-important reform agenda.

But these three main steps will happen only if the warring parties can reach some sort of initial agreement in principle to proceed with talks. Without a broad framework under a "What's Next?" title, there won't be light at the end of the tunnel.

Caretaker Premier Yingluck Shinawatra hinted at the possibility of negotiations with the protesters earlier this week when she was pressed by reporters to give a specific solution to the ongoing violence which has taken place on a daily basis, resulting in the death of four children aged three to five in Trat province and Bangkok's busy Ratchaprasong shopping hub earlier this week.

Yingluck remained adamant that she wouldn't quit her post, and declared her intention to "work until the last minute" even if a coup were to be staged to oust her. She clung to the position that she had to stay on "to protect democracy". The protesters have been calling for her resignation precisely because, they say, her continued presence as head of government undermines the very concept of democracy.

A fresh mini-round of talks between the government and the PDRC on Monday in the wake of rising fear of growing violence may have sparked some new hope, however tentative.

Election Commission member Somchai Srisuthiyakorn and Deputy Permanent Secretary of Justice Thawatchai Thaikiew arranged a meeting at the Justice Ministry between PDRC leader Phra Buddha Issara and Somchai Wongsawat, a former prime minister and key member of the ruling Pheu Thai Party. He is also Thaksin Shinawatra's brother-in-law.

If it was supposed to be an initial confidence-building meeting, things didn't work out as expected. Phra Buddha Issara broke the news in a Facebook post, saying the get-together was a "good sign" although former PM Somchai didn't have the power to make decisions on the spot. "What we discussed was that an atmosphere healthy for negotiations must be created first. No bombs," the monk, who was in charge of the Chaeng Wattana rally, wrote.

He added: "Let's say you create a healthy atmosphere in three to five days. There must be no car bomb or M79 [grenades], then we talk again. If there is any [attack], then you're on your own. Don't blame me."

The fact that representatives of both sides met at all was a positive sign, but the road to settlement remains long and bumpy. However, there doesn't seem to be a better alternative. Only formal negotiations in which both sides agree to give up some of their demands and head back to a widely accepted election in parallel with a serious reform process could put an end to the decade-long conflict.

Army Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has gone out of his way to make clear that the military isn't taking sides - and that the two sides must sit down to thrash out a mutually acceptable truce "or else the country is going down the drain".

In an unprecedented move, the army chief went on television to deliver a lengthy statement to suggest that a coup wasn't going to resolve the conflict and that the military establishment would not be trapped into a situation where it had to publicly side with one party against the other.

The general consensus seems to be that the two sides will first have to reach agreement on the first step: Caretaker Premier Yingluck steps down in exchange for an end to the three-month-long protest. That's the easy part. The more challenging next step would be the demand by the Thaksin camp for an amnesty for the former prime minister and a lifting of orders against his assets. PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban has insisted all along that investigations into the Shinawatra family's wealth would be one of the main aims once "people power" had ousted the government.

Rhetoric on both sides will have to be examined closely in any negotiations. The rule of law will have to be respected and good governance will have to remain a crucial part of any compromise. Details of how the reform process will be undertaken, including its timeline, will also be on top of the agenda.

An early agreement isn't on the cards. But time is running out for the Yingluck government, which remains stuck in the mud as several independent agencies prepare to hand down verdicts against it over corruption charges and other constitutional issues.

Things will get worse before they get better. But then, as the gurus of politics tell us, never let a good crisis go to waste. It's a great opportunity to do things you never thought could be done before.


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