January 7, 2010 7:33 pm

Thai leader seeks to heal divisions

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Abhisit Vejjajiva

Abhisit Vejjajiva: ‘Thai society has got to mature to a point where we can sort out our own problems’

The lawns of Government House in Bangkok are immaculate these days and the ornate Thai-Venetian facade restored to pristine condition.

That is not how it was a year ago when thousands of “yellow shirt” demonstrators – self-proclaimed defenders of the monarchy and enemies of the “red shirt” forces loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, occupied the premises for months, even planting rice on the lawns to symbolise their determination to stay.

In the event, they did not have to. The government of the day, loyal to Mr Thaksin, who had been ousted in a 2006 military coup, was itself brought down by a constitutional court ruling. Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat party considered more in tune with the yellow shirts’ conservative agenda, then took the premiership with the backing of a splinter faction from the ousted ruling party.

To his supporters, Mr Abhisit, an Oxford-educated liberal with an eloquent turn of phrase, was just the man to bring Thailand back from chaotic street violence. To his critics, he has been little more than the stooge of a military-backed elite that ousted legitimate, if imperfect, governments through coups and constitutional trickery. (Samak Sundaravej, the late pro-Thaksin prime minister, was removed by the courts on the grounds of conflict of interest for hosting a television cooking show.)

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, associate professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn university, says of Mr Abhisit’s supporters, a loose amalgam of the middle and upper classes and voters from the rural south: “They are not pro-status quo, they are pro-past.”

Mr Abhisit, interviewed this week in the aristocratic splendour of the Government House drawing room, rejects the notion that he serves an establishment agenda. He governs in the interests of all Thais, he says, including those previously marginalised voters from the impoverished north-east who swept Mr Thaksin to power in 2001.

“We have clearly implemented policies that have benefited everybody. If anything, the emphasis has been on the poor, on rural people,” he says, referring to his maintenance and extension of the affordable healthcare and education programmes championed by Mr Thaksin. “People are going to see through this myth, this propaganda, that there is only one party that helps the poor,” he says.

Mr Abhisit, appointed by parliament rather than via election mandate, aims to overturn the assumption that any election would automatically return a pro-Thaksin government. But before he is willing to test his conviction at the polls in advance of the December 2011 deadline, he insists on three conditions: a return to economic health, cross-party agreement on amending a military-imposed constitution, and an end to political violence.

A semblance of economic stability has returned with growth this year expected to reach at least 3.5 per cent after a contraction of a similar size last year. But stalemate over constitutional amendments, and continued threats of red shirt protests mean the other conditions remain unfulfilled.

“The offer of early elections is a compromise,” he says. “But I see no reason why we should call elections if they are not going to [lead to] some kind of reconciliation.” Of the red shirts, who are promising to hold demonstrations from Monday until the Abhisit government falls, he says: “What kind of democracy is it if you have people threatening to use violence? If they are really interested in reconciliation through a process of democracy, I see no reason why they shouldn’t agree to my conditions.”

The opposition rejects the obstructionist label, arguing it has no option but to take its cause to the streets after the banning of its best politicians and the removal of Mr Thaksin’s thrice-elected government in the 2006 coup.

Chaturon Chaisang, one of 111 officials from Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party suspended from politics, says: “Abhisit is trying to stay as long as possible. They are trying to discredit the red shirt movement and preparing to suppress the people.”

The heady rhetoric and sense of a lull before a political storm are exacerbated by the retreat from the scene of two crucial figures: 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, convalescing in hospital after a lengthy illness, and Mr Thaksin, in exile to avoid jail after having been convicted in absentia of breaching conflict of interest laws.

Mr Thaksin, who claims his conviction was political, has recently turned up the pressure by becoming an economic adviser to neighbouring Cambodia, giving every impression that he is waiting in the wings for a return to Thai politics. The protracted illness of King Bhumibol, who has often played a mediating role during his more than six-decade reign, has stirred widespread fears that bottled-up social and political tensions may erupt when he leaves the throne.

“We have been very fortunate that His Majesty has been an incredible unifying force, but Thai society has got to mature to a point where we can sort out our own problems,” says Mr Abhisit. Nobody, on either side of the political gulf, would claim Thailand is there yet.

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