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Thailand Negotiations Reach a Stalemate as Violence Escalates

May 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The leaders of Thailand's anti-government protests have surrendered to authorities, sparking more violence in the streets of Bangkok. Judy Woodruff talks to Richard Doner, a professor of political science at Emory University, for more on the politics behind the "red shirt" movement.
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JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff has more on the Thailand story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For some understanding of what’s behind the violence, we turn to Richard Doner. He’s professor of political science at Emory University. His latest book is “The Politics of Uneven Development in Thailand.”

Professor Doner, where do things stand as of tonight? What is the status of the opposition?

RICHARD DONER, Professor of Political Science, Emory University: The opposition seems to be heavily fragmented.

It’s, obviously — as your report just showed, the main area of protest has been broken up. Those protesters have been dispersed, but my understanding is that many protesters — protesters, or at least the hard-core, have dispersed to different parts of Bangkok and have proceeded to engage, to some degree, in protests, in looting, and in — to some degree, arsoning.

They have evidently torched one of the largest shopping centers in Asia, the CentralWorld shopping centers. In addition, there has broken out protests in at least a half-a-dozen north and northeastern provinces, where some buildings, some government buildings have been lit on fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that suggests the leader of this protest movement who surrendered only represent a part of what the movement is.

RICHARD DONER: Well, it’s — it — that’s — that’s true.

We — but one of the questions is, what exactly — what is the makeup of the protests? We know what their basic demands are, but we also know that there are a number of factions within the — within the Red Shirts.

And we also know that the leaders have been taken — were taken into — into custody by the government. So, my understanding at this point is that this is a — this is a movement without leaders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do they want?

RICHARD DONER: Well, the core demands of the Red Shirts for quite some time has been to get rid of the present government. That means, specifically, that they want accelerated elections, which this government eventually agreed to hold elections in November.

They also want a dissolution of the parliament. I — I believe they also want some degree of amnesty for the leaders of the protests. And they probably want immediately to get rid of the present prime minister, Abhisit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there was some movement, we know, a few days ago toward negotiations. The government was saying that it was going to move elections up sooner. That all fell apart.

So, what are the prospects now for — for any sort of resolution?

RICHARD DONER: Well, my understanding was, after that fell apart, a few days later — actually, just a day ago — the Red Shirt — the protesters actually accepted an offer from some senators to mediate and to have some kind of reconciliation process.

The government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit, is my understanding, rejected that. So, right now, the question is, who can speak for the protesters? That’s not clear, given that they have started to fragment.

And, second, even if the government makes a — what is considered to be a good offer, how credible will that offer be viewed in the eyes of the protesters? Because, right now, what’s important to remember is that the government’s credibility is quite low in the eyes of the core of the protesters.

These people have elected somebody that they thought represented them, Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2000, 2005. He was thrown out in a coup, and subsequent elections resulted in the victory of two people who became prime minister, subsequently, who represented the Red Shirts. They were also essentially kicked out, this time by judicial — judicial decree.

So, it’s not clear what will constitute a credible good-faith offer on the government’s part.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is a king in Thailand. He has weighed in when there have been previous political crises. Why hasn’t he been heard from this time?

RICHARD DONER: There are really two questions here. One is, why hasn’t the king or the monarchy in general been seen — been seen publicly and played the kind of role, as you said, that he has played in the past?

There are couple of reasons for this. One is that the king is 82 years old, is very ill, and probably incapable of playing this kind of role. But the second part of this is that the monarchy as an institution, according to many observers, has lost a significant amount of credibility.

In the last few years, the monarchy has been viewed as essentially allying itself with — with the present government and its supporters. So, it’s no longer easily able to play the kind of mediating — kind of mediating third-party honest broker role that it ostensibly played in the past.

The second question is, is it in fact not playing a role? There may be active participation by members of the royal household, the Privy Council in these negotiations or in decisions to launch military — military response. So, those — those, we just don’t know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Richard Doner, where do you see things headed at this point? What are the main options at this point for the opposition and the government?

RICHARD DONER: I guess there are three scenarios that I could imagine, Judy. One is that there is continued violence in different parts of Bangkok and in the provinces in the north and the northeast for a few weeks that will be difficult to control, because the military is stretched relatively thin.

That’s a bad scenario. A second, somewhat better scenario is Bangkok is controlled, essentially, no more protests and fighting in Bangkok, but some degree of protests in the provinces, which will peter out little by little, especially with military response.

And the third is an immediate government offer that is credible in the eyes of the protesters and greater ability of the protest leaders to control their followers. This depends on a number of factors, one, as I said, cohesion within the — within the protest movement itself.

But, also, it’s going to require cohesion and unity within the military, which is not to be — not to be assumed. There are tensions between the military and the police. And there are also some degree of tension within the coalition government right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Richard Doner, we thank you. We’re going to leave it there. We will be watching it along with you. Thanks very much.

RICHARD DONER: You’re welcome.