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Attitudes will harden after this
Thu, May 20, 2010
my paper
Thai army battle Red shirts after smashing into protest zone
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By Woon Wui Teck

THE battle for Thailand continues. After troops seized control of the Red Shirts' rally site yesterday, violence erupted elsewhere in Bangkok and other provinces. The real timeline for the Red Shirts' revolt runs to the next election, whenever that may be.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva may have felt he had no choice but to send in the troops.

Yet the government's action will succeed principally in hardening attitudes in Thailand's northern heartland.

The current ruling coalition has been trying to reach out to the impoverished voters there, who have stubbornly delivered electoral majorities to Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former premier, time and again.

Expect the crushing of the Bangkok protests to become a "Remember the Alamo"-type rallying cry that will erect a formidable barrier to Mr Abhisit's "reconciliation programme", however well-intentioned.

When the next election comes, look for another pro-Thaksin coalition to do well - and possibly relaunch a cycle of chaos.

Of course, the government wants to avert all that. Yesterday, it was reiterating its wish to push through reforms and start dialogue.

But its best, last hope of coming out a political winner probably came on Tuesday, when the besieged Red Shirts were desperately signalling a willingness to resume talks.

One of the government's stated reasons for turning down the overture was that the protest leaders had too little control over their more violent followers.

But, however true this might have been, things will be worse now.

The top Red Shirt leaders were relative moderates. Now the militants will be even less constrained.

Thaksin himself suggested yesterday a true insurgency could erupt, saying "a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerillas".

Yet this is not the real worry.

Though unrest has been reported in some northern provinces, the security forces are likely to be able to get a grip on things.

The problem is, if they crack down too hard, the people will feel even more alienated from the Bangkok elites.

Finally, by holding back so long before ordering the Red Shirt site cleared, Mr Abhisit probably forfeited much of the political capital he might otherwise have earned.

Even the pro-government Yellow Shirts are angry with him over his earlier bid to negotiate with the protesters.

wuitek@sph.com.sg


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