Thailand PM Gains Upper Hand in Protest Crisis

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Narong Sangnak / EPA

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, center, arrives for a Cabinet meeting in Bangkok on May 4, 2010

The troops were in place. Armored personnel carriers were at the ready. It was clear the crackdown was finally coming. At the start of the seventh week of anti-government demonstrations in the Thai capital of Bangkok, security forces were preparing to dislodge thousands of Red Shirt protesters who were barricading themselves inside the city's main commercial district. The Red Shirts, armed with grenades, assault rifles and other weapons, vowed to go down fighting. Bloodshed appeared inevitable. And if it came, its biggest casualty could have been the man who ordered in the troops, and who some regard as Thailand's brightest political star: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"In Thailand, the conventional wisdom is that you can not have any injuries, any casualties when dispersing a protest," Abhisit said during a weekend interview with foreign journalists. The setting was an army base in northern Bangkok where, because of threats to his personal safety, the Prime Minister had been living and working since the protests began on March 14.

The irony was obvious. Previous Thai leaders who presided over crackdowns were military men, such as General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. The resulting bloodshed led to their resignations and exile. Abhisit, a student of history and a firm believer in democratic values, who has never served in the military, had no desire to join their ranks. His opponents, however, had already consigned him there, branding him a tyrant and demanding that he quit. Even some supporters, believing his handling of the protests was weak, were calling on him to quit. Despite the perilously fine line he was walking, Abhisit remained calm and composed as he detailed his dilemma. "The public's patience is running out. We have to enforce the law," he said. "But we would rather not have to use violence or have a confrontation."

And so, on Tuesday evening, Abhisit made the Red Shirts a final offer of peace. The protesters are mainly supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and lives abroad rather than serve a prison sentence for a corruption conviction. Many are from the lower classes and want Thaksin back in power, believing he is the only politician who cares about them. They see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as an elitist. Speaking on national television, Abhisit, whose term runs until the end of 2012, offered to hold national elections on Nov. 14 — if a five-point road map to achieve national reconciliation that he unveiled could be achieved without disruption or violence from opponents. Among the five points is a plan to build a social-welfare system for the poor.

Reactions from opposition politicians were positive. "It is now evident that the Prime Minister has embarked on the right course," said Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, leader of the Puea Thai Party. Even Thaksin, in a phone interview with Thai journalists, said the timing was good for the Red Shirts to accept the Prime Minister's offer.

And yet on Wednesday evening, Red Shirt leaders refused to send the protesters home. While they said they welcomed the road map, they demanded that Abhisit guarantee a date to dissolve the parliament, then began issuing more demands and launching furious tirades against the Prime Minister. But with their numbers down and their reputation suffering as Bangkok grew weary of the two-month disruption, the feeling around the capital was that the Red Shirts could not hold out much longer. The Thai stock market finished the day up 4.3% on expectations that the protest was drawing to peaceful conclusion.

Abhisit may not be out of the woods yet, but he does appear to have the upper hand. Derided for being soft and under question for his ability to command Thailand's police and military, Abhisit finally appeared to be leading rather than reacting to the protesters. But if the tide is turning against the demonstrators, it has as much to do with Red Shirt blunders as the Prime Minister's political acumen.

When they first arrived in Bangkok in mid-March, the Red Shirts garnered surprising support from the people of the capital. The demonstrations began peacefully, and as many as 140,000 people turned up, although reports were rife of protesters being paid to attend. But when the government would not bow to their demands, protest leaders began a series of aggressive actions, invading the offices of the election commission and bursting into the parliament as lawmakers climbed over a back wall. On April 10, several hundred Red Shirts provoked the military by attempting to overrun an army base in the capital. Soldiers moved to disperse the demonstration but failed. The result was 26 dead, including six soldiers, and more than 800 wounded and injured.

Abhisit appeared to be finished. Calls rose for him to resign and leave the country. But as videos and photos emerged of Red Shirts or protest sympathizers firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at soldiers, it became clear that the protest had become an armed insurgency. Two weeks later, grenades were fired at Bangkok's commuter rail line, killing one and injuring dozens. The government claimed they were fired from behind Red Shirt lines. Finally, on the night of April 29, Red Shirt guards forced their way into a public hospital searching for soldiers as doctors and nurses protested in vain. No soldiers were found. The next day, the public watched as tearful nurses evacuated critically ill patients — including the elderly, infants and the country's Supreme Patriarch. It was a public relations disaster for the protesters. Their numbers had dwindled to between 5,000 and 8,000, and the army was massing.

Just three weeks ago, Abhisit, weak and fumbling, was on the verge of seeing his premiership destroyed and his place in Thai history tarnished forever. Now, gaining strength while exercising restraint, he appears the statesman in this conflict. With his road map to move the country forward, he has given Red Shirt leaders a chance to avoid a violent showdown and an opportunity to declare some sort of victory and save face. Now if only they will take it.