Bangkok/Brussels - The Thai political system has broken down and seems incapable of pulling the country back from the brink of widespread conflict. The stand-off in the streets of Bangkok between the government and Red Shirt protesters is worsening and could deteriorate into an undeclared civil war. The country's polarisation demands immediate action in the form of assistance from neutral figures from outside. It is time for Thailand to consider help from international friends to avoid a slide into wider violence. Even the most advanced democracies have accepted this.
Situation on the Ground
So far, at least 26 people have died in clashes between the military and the Red Shirts, a group of mostly rural and urban poor more formally known as the "United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD)". That number could rise sharply if the military moves to dislodge thousands of protesters camped in the centre of the capital. The Red Shirts demand the immediate dissolution of parliament and quick new elections; Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has refused and handed control of security to the military.
Bangkok is tense. The Red Shirts have ground the capital's bustling commercial hub to a halt. Businesses in the area have been shuttered for weeks and residents have voluntarily relocated to avoid being caught in clashes between soldiers and protesters positioned only metres from their doors. The city has been hit by dozens of explosions by unidentified assailants while many nervously await an expected army operation to "remove" the Red Shirts from the streets.
Local efforts at mediation have failed. Civil society groups brought the government and the protesters together but the talks faltered over when to dissolve parliament. The Red Shirts offered a 30-day deadline; Abhisit was only willing to agree to go to the polls within nine months. The fault lines are widening between the establishment - an amalgam of elderly courtiers, powerful generals and many middle class supporters - and the protesters, many of whom support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
While some blame Thaksin for the stand-off, the protests have moved far beyond his control. Many Thais are deeply disillusioned by an elite that denied them the fruits of development for decades and then ousted a government elected mostly by the rural poor. Thailand is a country prone to violence, with a history of bloody insurgencies and authoritarianism - an uncomfortable reality for most Thais to accept. Violence in Bangkok could spread if there is a crackdown.
This crisis comes as the country is facing its first prospect of royal succession in more than six decades. The monarch may no longer be in a position to resolve disputes, and even if he is willing, the current crisis is more complex than previous ones where he stepped in. An unsuccessful intervention could damage royal prestige and the throne's moral authority.
The government must recognise that a violent crackdown would severely damage them and likely lead to more conflict. The UDD leadership must also accept that further provocations or violence will only do more damage to their democratic credentials, as well as undercut the credibility of their entire campaign for change.
What Should Be Done
The following steps should be taken urgently:
The creation of a high-level facilitation group of international figures. Nobel Laureate and Timor Leste President Jose Ramos Horta is already in Bangkok at his own initiative and could be joined by other figures, perhaps drawn from The Elders or from the ranks of former top senior government officials with experience in Thailand.
This group, which should be joined by independent Thai figures, should bring together the government and Red Shirts to encourage immediate steps to prevent violence, such as ending the military operation; the self-limitation of protests to a small, more symbolic number of people who do not disrupt life in Bangkok; and the formation of a national unity committee that pulls together people from all walks of life.
This committee should begin negotiations, facilitated by the international group, on an interim government of national unity and preparations for elections, although these will be controversial and should not be rushed into as quickly as demanded. The government must be led by someone from parliament but should be made up mostly of neutral, respected individuals from across society.
The committee should also facilitate the formation of an independent body to investigate the 10 April clashes between the security forces and Red Shirt protesters at Democracy Monument, as well as other violent incidents related to the current demonstrations.
Once the immediate crisis is defused, with a rapid return to the rule of law, political negotiations may require some time as they will involve confidence-building measures, including accountability on both sides for the violence. Politics needs to return to parliament.
Thai political life will have to be refreshed with new elections and, perhaps, a new constitution to replace the country's military-influenced charter.