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News Analysis: Thailand edging deeper into violence

Published on Feb 24, 2014 2:34 PM
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A Thai soldier photographs the crime scene following a bomb blast in Bangkok on February 23, 2014. With four people including three young children killed in just two days, violence appears to have escalated as Thailand's political impasse goes further into a dead end. -- PHOTO: REUTERSCopyright: REUTERS

With four people including three young children killed in just two days, violence appears to have escalated as Thailand's political impasse goes further into a dead end.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, forced by protesters to abandon her Government House office in Bangkok weeks ago, has apparently left the capital and is working from an undisclosed location 150 kilometres away, officials said on Monday as the government clings to office amid a deepening stalemate and rising violence.

Thailand's powerful army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha meanwhile, said on television on Monday there would be no military intervention.

The situation, he said, was worse than in 2010 when there were battles on the streets of Bangkok between pro-government red shirts and the army, leaving over 90 dead. Many more groups were involved in the current conflict, he said.

The army had been tarnished by being dragged into politics, the general said, urging all sides to work towards a peaceful solution.

As is frighteningly typical of political violence in Thailand, most victims have been random and perpetrators of gun and grenade attacks who are apparently unknown and been able to get away unscathed.

The more recent events point to increasing anger among pro-government groups, whose own radicals have been restrained for months by their leadership - but whose patience is wearing thin.

On Sunday at a pro-government "red shirt" strategy meeting in north-eastern Korat, a local red shirt leader from Chonburi had to be stopped by senior leaders from telling the gathering that the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) deserved the attack that took place the previous night in Trat where a little girl had been killed. 

PDRC has been campaigning for over 100 days to force Ms Yingluck and her government from office.

But former red shirt Member of Parliament Jatuporn Promphan who is considered hawkish, said the pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), an umbrella group for the movement, was "only waiting for the right moment to come out".

"We have to fight or die," he told the meeting.

A group of red shirt leaders from northern provinces did not come to the meeting, apparently maintaining that the UDD was too slow and moderate.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has issued a statement urging "the Government, pro- and anti-government protest leaders and all parents to ensure children do not enter protest sites and are kept well away from all protest areas".

A five-year-old girl was killed when gunmen attacked the PDRC rally in Trat on Saturday night. She was eating noodles with her parents at a market stall when gunmen in two pickup trucks opened fire and lobed grenades at the rally nearby. She was hit by a stray bullet.

Separately, two children - a four-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister - were killed when a grenade exploded at a rally site in downtown Bangkok's upscale retail district on Sunday afternoon.

Two more children from the incidents are still in hospital. One of them, a five-year-old girl, is in a coma.

The fear of violence has been rising for a while as Thailand's political impasse drags on with no solution in sight.

The PDRC wants a power vacuum to enable the appointment of an interim prime minister to institute reforms before allowing the country to return to elections.

The caretaker government has been retreating but also digging in its heels, doggedly following constitutional procedure and determined to cling on to office.

A snap election on Feb 2 was hampered by an opposition boycott and PDRC activists sabotaging the polls - and the process has yet to be completed, leaving the country without a sitting parliament potentially for another month or two.

Widespread violence and a general breakdown in security, had always been on the cards, says Thailand scholar David Streckfuss, who is based in Khon Kaen in the north-east.

Analysts have pointed out that the only way the power vacuum the PDRC wants can be created, is either through a broad based political consensus which will see the Yingluck government in effect ceding power to an interim neutral administration - or through a coup d'etat.

"One might argue it is in the interest of the PDRC to have a general breakdown of security; increasingly indiscriminate violence targeting the PDRC may incite the military to mount a coup d'etat," Mr Streckfuss said.

Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told The Straits Times attacks on the anti-government PDRC appeared to have increased on the heels of a Feb 19 court judgment that upheld the government's declaration of a state of emergency - but stripped it of the means to enforce it.

That had left the pro-government "red shirt" movement with the impression that the PDRC was "untouchable", Mr Sunai said.

nirmal@sph.com.sg

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