THAILAND: For PM, Leading A Divided Nation is a Sisyphean Struggle By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jan 15, 2010 (IPS) – A year after coming into office, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is finding some parallels between the challenges of governing this divided South-east Asian kingdom and one of his favourite books, the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ by French existential novelist Albert Camus.

“Yes, it feels like that in trying to get work done,” the 45-year-old leader of a coalition government told IPS on Thursday night, shortly after delivering a speech to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. “It is like having to push the rock up the hill and see it roll down and then do it again, to go on.”

The reference was to Camus’ use of Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology, in the final chapter of the book. Sisyphus is reduced to having to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down, and then repeat the process.

Yet while Sisyphus’ struggle served as a metaphor for the ordinariness of modern life – but where the struggle of labouring against odds should make Sisyphus happy, according to Camus – the Thai prime minister’s challenges are far from drab, dull toil.

Dealing with the country’s poor economic performance and social divisions has been among them. So, too, corruption involving members of his cabinet. A raging insurgency in the southern provinces, where close to 4,000 people have died since early 2004, has barely ebbed.

But his most daunting task is the quest to reconcile Thailand’s deep political divisions, made worse by the manner in which the Abhisit-led coalition came to office. It was product of the triumph of backroom deals involving reportedly large sums of money and a lead role played by the country’s powerful military – rather than a popular mandate.

The Abhisit administration, which won a slim majority in a parliamentary vote in December 2008, replaced an administration allied to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra that had been elected at a poll the previous year. Political tensions have been on the rise in the country’s colour-coded protest movements, echoing the signs of turbulence that dogged Abhisit during his first few months in office as Thailand’s 27th premier. The anti- government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), who sport red shirts during public protests, are upping their rhetoric and action.

UDD-led protests outside the holiday home of an advisor to the country’s revered monarch are one sign of continued political restiveness in the country. The ‘Red Shirts’ are accusing Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont of owning a chalet – against the law — in a hilly forest reserve. Surayud, a former army commander, served as premier in Thailand’s military-appointed government after the popular and twice-elected Thaksin administration was ousted in a September 2006 coup.

The UDD, which has strong links to Thaksin, is now threatening a showdown ahead of a judgement on Feb. 26 by the Supreme Court. The verdict will determine the fate of 2.2 billion U.S. dollars worth of Thaksin’s assets that were frozen by the Surayud-led military-appointed government.

“We do anticipate that there will be demonstrations and Thaksin and his supporters will up their game,” Abhist said during his address at a Bangkok hotel to foreign correspondents. “But I am confident that the majority of Thai people are tired of this situation.”

He dismissed the prospect of violence breaking out in the wake of the local media running commentaries and reports suggesting a looming “civil war” or a “last battle”. “It is just (language) used to whip up sentiment,” added Abhisit, whose government’s ability to last 2009 in the face of protests contrasts with two premiers who resigned after few months in office in 2008 amid street protests from the anti-Thaksin ‘Yellow Shirts’.

Sources close to Thaksin confirm the role of the former premier, now living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for a corruption, to use the ‘Red Shirts’ to ratchet up the political heat in the country ahead of the February verdict. “Thaksin himself has been mobilising people so that he can build numbers for him to negotiate any deal (concerning his assets),” one source told IPS.

Thaksin enjoys wide support among the country’s rural and urban poor and anti-establishment voters, who see themselves as victims of a system riddled with injustice and that favours monarchists and the entrenched elite. They also identify with some of the Thaksin administration’s positive moves – such as its raft of pro-poor policies – rather than its negatives, from the abuse of power to corruption.

Yet a veteran Thai politician who served as a cabinet minister during the Thaksin administration dismisses the prospect of the country’s conservative establishment settling for a deal in the wake of UDD-led protests to help Thaksin regain his frozen assets. “I don’t think that the establishment will negoitate with Thaksin, no matter what the people do or the Red Shirts try,” says Chaturon Chaisang.

“The government and the establishment think they are secure and they can manage the situation,” he told IPS and two other correspondents. “There is no space for reconciliation now.”

The likelihood of violence is gathering momentum, he added. “If violence takes place, the government will suppress the Red Shirts and it will (be made to) appear legitimate.”

A senior civil servant echoes this scenario. “The political divisions we have between the Red Shirts, the Yellow Shirts and the government are deep and wide,” he told IPS on condition of anonymity. “Bloodshed may unfortunately be a way out to overcome these splits.”

Another avenue is a general election to release the political tensions simmering in the country in recent years. But the Abhisit administration appears to have ruled this out, given the conditions it places for calling for a poll ahead of the scheduled one in December 2011.

Three criteria have to be met before an election is called, Abhisit asserts. They are an economic recovery, an agreement by all political parties about the rules of the polls and a commitment by parties to secure a seat in Parliament in a free and fair manner. (END)

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