- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thailand’s government recently proposed a reconciliation plan aimed at settling the country’s largest and bloodiest protests in decades, but the plan has few backers.

The plan calls for addressing the income gap between rich and poor; preventing political parties from using the monarchy as a tool in political conflicts; reviewing the constitution; barring the media from airing reports that provoke conflict; and investigating violence that racked the country from March to May.

Kiat Sittheeamorn, special envoy of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said in an interview with The Washington Times on Friday that while some opposition leaders had had a change of heart about the use of violence, none had so far offered his support for the government plan.

Mr. Kiat was dispatched to Washington by the prime minister to brief the Obama administration and members of Congress on the Thai government’s efforts to restore peace in the country. Following his meetings with senior officials at the State Department and White House, Mr. Kiat said everyone was supportive of the reconciliation plan.

The plan was first announced by Mr. Abhisit on May 3. It was promptly rejected by the opposition Red Shirts. An army crackdown during a showdown with protesters left at least 88 dead and cost the Thai economy $5 billion in lost income.

Mr. Kiat said the plan offered by Mr. Abhisit last week was no different from the one in May.

“We tried to identify the issues that may be a point of conflict within our society,” he said. “It is important that all parties involved sign up for it and work together to achieve these objectives.”

Ernest Bower, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia program, said the reconciliation plan is “comprehensive on paper; but in reality, there are doubts about implementation.”

“Although protests have been cleared from the streets, the country remains deeply divided. Walking around Bangkok gives one the feel of being in the eye of the storm — a false and temporary calm undermined by palpable tension,” Mr. Bower said in an e-mail interview from Thailand.

The opposition is demanding early elections. Mr. Abhisit’s term ends in November 2011. Mr. Kiat said a decision to hold early elections will depend on the progress made in the reconciliation process.

The government, he said, wants to first ensure that all parties can campaign without intimidation. “If these conditions are met, the prime minister is willing to sacrifice his term to call for early elections,” he said.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is widely acknowledged as a main force behind the Red Shirts. While Mr. Kiat said reconciliation will involve all stakeholders in the country, the government has not extended its offer to Mr. Thaksin, who has been convicted of abuse of power and is currently a fugitive.

The Thai government’s probe of Mr. Thaksin’s “war on drugs” also is a point of contention. Mr. Kiat denied that this investigation was reopened, and said the probe had been ongoing, and a report is now ready. He said he was unaware of its findings.

Mr. Bower said the government’s “retroactive focus on Thaksin’s sins of the past leaves many here wondering if the focus of this period of relative calm will be revenge and not retribution.”

“It is a high-risk proposition by the government,” he said of the investigation.

Mr. Thaksin’s adviser, Noppadon Pattama, meanwhile, proposed “peace talks” with the government, but the government is in no mood to negotiate.

“I think he lost his mind,” said Mr. Kiat of Mr. Noppadon’s proposal. “Peace talks only apply when there is a conflict between two countries. All the issues we raise are of the concern of the people, not of a particular person, and not even for the government.”

Mr. Kiat said the Thai government was ready to talk about other issues that might be relevant to the reconciliation process, but at this point no party had suggested anything new.

On the question of a review of the constitution, Mr. Kiat said this was important because “we don’t want to run into another election just to find out that after the election some party will say they disagree with certain articles of the constitution.”

Following the crackdown on protesters, the Thai government extended a period of emergency across the country. Mr. Kiat said it was up to authorities in the various provinces to determine when the time is right to lift the emergency. “They have to have confidence that they can keep the situation under control and that all the people under arrest warrants have been arrested,” he said.

The prime minister has asked Kanit Nanakorn, a former attorney general, to lead an independent inquiry into the clashes between armed troops and demonstrators. Critics say Mr. Kanit’s proximity to the government will undermine the credibility of the investigation. But Mr. Kiat said Mr. Kanit is “known for his impartiality and fairness” and added that the government would welcome the investigating panel members who are sympathetic to the Red Shirts.

Mr. Kiat said the government would also take responsibility if the conduct of military, police and government is found to be in violation of the law.

Another objective of Mr. Kiat’s visit to the U.S. was to correct “misperceptions” created by “inaccurate reporting” of events in Thailand over the past few months. He was satisfied that the Obama administration now has a better understanding of the situation in Thailand.

Scot Marciel, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told U.S. lawmakers last week that the U.S. “can be a source of support as the Thais work to resolve the issues that still divide them, but it is the Thai people themselves who must make the difficult choices on how to proceed.”