Update: “Reconciliation” seemed to last only a few minutes. By the evening of Monday, the main state media outlets were attacking the red shirts quite vigorously. Thai Television included a long “news analysis” that would have been at home on ASTV. Indeed, it included several unattributed references to the ASTV’s publications attacking the red shirts.
It does seem that the enormous red shirt caravan and the support it achieved in Bangkok has had a considerable impact. It has been baffling and challenging to pro-government groups for all kinds of reasons – see the excellent Chang Noi column.
Immediately after the caravan, there were reports of bombing, and this could have been a sign of a darker force at work to undermine the red shirt leaderships’ determination to be non-violent. These threats could have come from a range of disgruntled or determined or wildly worried sources. There were some red shirt affiliates who wanted a more aggressive approach. It could have come from disgruntled military and intelligence types who have long employed these kinds of unsettling tactics. It could have been a government strategy. What seems clear at the moment is that there has been a stepping back from this strategy. It could easily return.
The military-backed government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva seemed determined to get tougher. Abhisit himself went on the offensive, attacking the red shirts as Thaksin Shinawatra-dominated and money dominated. He blanketed television. He was supported by a range of yellow-hued attacks o the red shirts. The determination to denigrate the rallies and caravan as the actions of the paid-off, duped and ignorant was seen amongst Democrat ideologues and was all over the ASTV/Manager and yellow-shirt twitters and blogs. That continues. On the English-language blogs, the determined yellow shirts returned in heavy posting, demeaning and damning the red shirts in tones almost identical with those used to damn rural voters when the People’s Alliance for Democracy wanted them effectively disenfranchised. Letters to the English-language press have been dominated by outrage against the red shirts from supposedly foreign readers.
However, the government and its backers seem to have gradually seen the message of the past days and week as representing a serious challenge. Increasingly, there seems to have been a lot of pressure for Abhisit and his backers to return to “reconciliation.” That term was originally the rhetoric of the 2006 coup leadership and the governments that followed, but the Abhisit government seemed happy enough to abandon it. This pressure began before the caravan on Saturday, but has since increased. Some of the Thai-language press has been gradually more willing to consider a red shirt view (see here and here).
The pressures included the rallying of Peua Thai parliamentarians and leader Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to the red shirt leadership. Initially, some Peua Thai leaders seemed reluctant to be openly associated with the red shirts, but as the movement has achieved successes, that reluctance has melted away. The pressure from parliamentarians for the government to seek a way out was also significant. So too was the pressure from coalition partners and the usually government-supporting groups.
Initially, Abhisit seemed intent on putting out “let’s talk” signals, but maintained conditions that the red shirt rally leadership rejected. The Nation (21 March 2010) reported that Abhisit held out the possibility of a general election this year. That was significant for the coalition still feels that it will lose, meaning that the strategy has long been to avoid an election for as long as possible. This year has problems. For one thing, this government and its supporters want to control the military reshuffle due in October to ensure the “right” people get control for the next few years. That would at least ensure that a pro-Thaksin government would not have much free reign.
Abhisit somewhat foolishly suggested that two of the most anti-red shirt Democrats be negotiators – propaganda chief Sathit Wongnongtoey and Korbsak Sabhavasu. Abhisit seems to trust these men, but they have low ratings amongst red shirts. Abhisit soft-pedaled, saying these guys wanted to negotiate the terms of negotiation with the red shirts rather than to negotiate ways out of the “crisis.”
The red-shirt leaders “insisted they would only talk directly to Abhisit about any truce prospects.” They added that dissolving parliament was the main demand.
Abhisit continued to reject this in a familiar statement that “there would be a House dissolution only when the country is ready for a free and fair election so that the public will benefit from such a move.” He added: “we have to cut a deal that we would do it [house dissolution] for the public interest with no Thaksin issues involved…”. This is seen by many red shirts as a return to a position of 2008, where after winning the 2007 election, the then People’s Power government was prevented from dealing with any constitutional or other issues that the PAD and its backers considered “Thaksin-related.” Abhisit is agenda-setting for a feared “pro-Thaksin” government.
Coalition partners Puea Pandin and Chart Thai Pattana were far more supportive of talks with the protesters. The Nation reported that “Watchara Kannikar of the Chart Thai Pattana Party said both the government and protesters should reduce their preconditions so that there could be a deal.”
Now a cynical PPT would see much of this as an attempt to regain the political driving seat by a visibly disturbed government. Indeed, Abhisit was forced to call all of the coalition party leaders to his army base “government house” for an all channels live broadcast to redisplay coalition unity. It looked like a shaky strategy and ended remarkably abruptly. The point of the media event was to announce some stepping back. The Nation (22 March 2010 – reported that “The coalition parties agreed negotiations should begin today with mediation by the National Human Rights Commission or senators…”. The meeting appointed “Education Minister Chinnaworn Boonyakiat [and] … Korbsak Sabhavasu as negotiators [to]… meet with red shirt leaders Dr Weng Tojirakarn and Jaran Ditthapichai today to set the terms of talks.” The red shirts quickly rejected Chinnaworn and opened the possibility of dealing direct with the smaller coalition parties.
Abhisit was also forced to agree that he might have to lead negotiations with the red shirt leaders. But positions remain quite a way apart. The red shirts know that the government could return to a strategy of waiting out the red shirt protest or worse.
Interestingly, the impact of the red shirt caravan has been sinking in for government supporters. The Nation has a Page 1 comment alters its political language to talk again of “reconciliation.” In a classic piece of Nation doublespeak, it is stated that politicians are the problem: “We can’t let those with political stakes exert a grip on our hearts and souls for their own interests. It’s as simple as that.” PPT observes that The Nation has been heavily involved in a strident campaign of political hate for several years so this is the equivalent of a racist calling for inter-racial harmony. The born-again reconciliationist as the Nation calls for a middle path: “An independent person must be able to loath Abhisit but love those who adore him at the same time. An independent person must be able to scrutinise Thaksin and understand why others think highly of the man.” The editorialist seems to think the way out may be in a slimy political deal.
Maybe it will be a slimy compromise in the end. Cynically, if the establishment already controls the judiciary and many of the so-called independent bodies, can maintain the 2007 Constitution, controls the military, has the senate in its pocket, and can set an agenda in advance for a pro-red shirt government, then as that government comes to office it is totally hamstrung. And then there is the threat of PAD or worse. More cynically, a darker outcome of destabilization and military intervention is possible. A darker 1976-like right-wing crackdown on opposition may have faded for the moment, but not the forces itching to crack heads.
A few things are clear: the red shirts and their innovative political tactics are something that might scared the blue bloods out of the morning latte and croissant with imported preserves and served by the red shirt maid (“Will she now be emboldened enough to murder me and loot the house?”) but they have been a raging success amongst those millions who understand double standards, inequality and the power of the amart. These things are sort of new and sort of old. Who would have thought that in a supposedly post-industrial world, a movement of peasants and workers would rise? Scary enough to get an elite deal perhaps? But also scary enough to prompt the darker forces also.