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Seeking a neutral peacebroker

A deeply polarised Thailand sorely needs a neutral figure who can negotiate an end to its six-month political crisis, but finding a person acceptable to the warring sides has thus far been impossible.

At one end of the political divide is the mass support base of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, reduced to a caretaker prime minister. At the other end is a largely Bangkok-based middle and upper class.

Then there is Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the anti-Thaksin People's Democratic Reform Committee whose street protests since last October have brought the government to its knees.

There are no signs of any attempt to hold talks behind the scenes to find a compromise.

According to a source who met Thaksin in recent months, the former prime minister is willing to talk, but cannot find anyone to hold talks with and who can follow through and deliver on an agreement.

The latest attempt at consensus-building by opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva appears doomed.

Abhisit, whom Thaksin's supporters hold responsible for the army crackdown on red-shirt protesters in Bangkok in 2010 when he was prime minister, tweeted this week: "I admit that I am part of the problem."

The name of Anand Panyarachun, 81, a former diplomat who was premier twice in the early 1990s and is well-regarded to this day, has been mentioned again as a potential interim premier. But even Anand is not considered neutral. His appointment came after the generals who launched the 1991 coup d'etat put up his name. Like Abhisit, he is seen as cut from elitist cloth.

Similarly, the pro-government camp is hard-pressed to find someone who will not be viewed as tainted by ties to Thaksin.

"There's no one neutral," concludes Fuadi Pitsuwan, a fellow at Harvard University and son of Dr Surin Pitsuwan, a senior Democrat Party figure and former Asean secretary-general. "And I don't agree with [having] an appointed prime minister because there is no one who I think is acceptable to both sides of the conflict," he added.

The concept of neutrality in Thailand is also problematic, says political science professor Pitch Pongsawat of Chulalongkorn University. He cited a folktale that every Thai knows well, about two good friends who fought over a fish they caught. A village elder asked to mediate told the man who caught the fish to keep the head and the other to keep the tail. As the elder helped end the quarrel, he kept the middle and best part of the fish for himself.

"The moral of the story is, don't trust people who try to solve the problem because they want something out of it," said Pitch.


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