BANGKOK, Thailand — At long last, Thai Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva and protesters sworn to end his rule are nearing a pact: he cuts his term short to deliver new elections, they abandon a rugged encampment choking off central Bangkok.
The truce could end an eight-weeks running struggle that has left 27 dead, roughly 900 injured and the economy sapped of more than $2 billion. It could also return normalcy to a city on edge.
The stability, however, may not last.
Just hours after the compromise was announced, Nattawut Saikua, a negotiator for the “Red Shirts” anti-government faction, told a crowd of followers that the prime minister’s hands remained “stained with blood.”
Clad in a crimson University of Wisconsin T-shirt, and matching upcountry loincloth, he continued his tirade. “The blood will soon stain his entire body!” he shouted. “And if he stays in Thailand? He’ll be screwed.”
This is the low point from which the government and their detractors are attempting a reconciliation.
The Red Shirts — a largely working-class movement to end Thailand’s so-called “rule of the elites” — has painted government leaders as killers and tyrants. Likewise, the government has linked the Red Shirts to terrorism, mysterious grenade attacks in Bangkok and turncoat soldiers accused of gunning down high-ranking officers.
Though the promise of fresh elections in mid-November is hoped to temper the potential for violence, new polls could provide the next flash point for more street unrest.
A rival street faction devoted to preserving the status quo — the Yellow Shirts — is unlikely to accept rule by politicians voted in by the vote-rich, rural laboring class. This group’s 2008 seizure of Bangkok’s airports previously played a role in toppling a political party favored by the Red Shirts.
If more unruly protest movements are successful in swaying politics by paralyzing Bangkok, the country is in danger of never-ending unrest, said political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“The election campaigns ... could actually be very nasty,” he said. “It could actually exacerbate the confrontation. It could end up in the same vicious cycle: whoever wins, the losers won’t accept it.”
This cycle, Thitinan said, will be encouraged if amnesty is offered in the wake of violent uprisings.
Despite countless opportunities for police to arrest Red Shirt leaders — almost all of whom are charged with breaching emergency decrees — they remain free. Likewise, charges against Yellow Shirt leaders from their bout of seizing government property two years ago have not landed any of them in prison.
“There cannot be a blanket amnesty now. You have fatalities,” Thitinan said. “The line has to be drawn somewhere. What is criminal? And what is political?”
The fight-to-the-death rhetoric invoked by both factions, Red and Yellow, has convinced many of their followers that negotiation equals surrender. Even as the Red Shirts’ leadership mediated behind closed doors with the government, some within their encampment seemed disappointed.
“I’ve been coming here for 50 days straight,” said Sawitre Yodchomchin, a 53-year-old unemployed former jewelry saleswoman from Bangkok. “I still don’t want to go home.”
Red paraphernalia adorned her entire body, from her headband to her flip-flops, silk-screened with caricatures of the prime minister and his deputy. She delights, she said, in walking on their faces.
“The government may be tricking us,” Sawitre said. “Even if the army comes to kill us, I won’t leave. It’ll be like Rwanda or Liberia. The U.N. should be helping us.”
Anti-government disdain is promoted by glossy magazines publishing borderline death threats against political and military figureheads. One widely available publication superimposed the prime minister’s face on Adolph Hitler’s body with the tagline “ARREST WARRANT: Dead or Alive.”
Media in Thailand have become extremely polarized, Thitinan said, between anti-government networks and state-owned channels pushing their own biased messages. He compared it to Americans’ single-minded devotion to either Fox News or MSNBC depending on their political leanings.
“The hatred, the disagreement, deepens and becomes more enflamed,” he said. “Media, yes, it’s inviolable. But both sides need to tone down.”
As Red Shirt and government negotiators brokered what the the prime minister calls a “roadmap” for reconciliation, many protesters appeared battle-worn and ready to return home.
They’re also getting miserably wet. Thailand is entering its rainy season, a period of intense, near-daily showers. In recent days, protesters have had to scramble under the awnings of Central World, Asia’s second-largest mall, as storm clouds whirl above downtown skyscrapers.
Still, scrappy young men in motorbike helmets continue to patrol gates built of sharpened bamboo stakes and tires. Red Shirt leaders have urged all to maintain their camp until negotiations are complete.
“Of course I’m tired,” said Red Shirt supporter Sopee Wong, a 49-year-old former Houston resident born in central Thailand. “But the teenagers over there, they keep saying they’re not scared. Saying, ‘I want to die for my country.’”
“I tell them, ‘Don’t be stupid.’ You only have a wooden stick,” she said. “Too many people are ready to die. If Thai people keep fighting like this, we’re never going to win.”