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Bangkok and Kiev revisited

The anti-government protests in Thailand and Ukraine continue to throw up interesting similarities while also revealing their underlying differences.

It seems to have been a reasonably good week for the embattled governments in both Ukraine and Thailand. In Ukraine, protesters have evacuated a number of government buildings, including Kiev’s city hall, that they had been occupying; in return, the government has confirmed that an amnesty for the protesters will come into force today.

This doesn’t mean the protests are over, and there are clearly divisions among the protesters over how much to compromise with the government. But it shows that negotiations are still possible and raises hopes for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

In Bangkok, protests also appear to be on the wane. The government was able to clear protesters from a number of sites on Friday, and has vowed to retake control of key government buildings this week. It also managed to arrest one protest leader, Sonthiyan Chuenruethainaitham, although he was later released on bail. Authorities still seem serious about their intention to apprehend the main leader of the opposition movement, Suthep Thaugsuban, on a charge of treason.

That comes on top of a big win for the government mid-week, when the constitutional court (not usually a sympathetic body) refused a request to invalidate the 2 February election, boycotted by the opposition. Talks are being held today between the government and the electoral commission on how to proceed with by-elections in seats where voting was prevented this month.

But although localised negotiations have taken place between government and protesters, there still seems no sign of a general willingness to compromise on either side.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, despite mishandling the early stages of the crisis, has at least shown himself capable of grand gestures – such as the offer to appoint an opposition leader as prime minister, an option that seems to remain open – in the attempt to find a solution. Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra has appeared more stubborn and less imaginative.

In her defence, however, Yingluck has a more difficult hand to play. Suthep and the protesters have been intransigent to the point of recklessness, and the government is never sure just how much control it has over the possible instruments of power to deal with them – particularly, and crucially, over the armed forces.

The difference, in my view, is not due to any deep cultural differences between Ukraine and Thailand (or Europe and Asia), but to simple differences in institutions. The Thai establishment of royal family, generals and Bangkok elites has a reserve of power that has no analogue in Ukraine. It’s not just the constitutional power of the king, but the ample precedents that show that power to be more than theoretical, and show how it can be supplemented by extra-legal means.

So while it may be irresponsible and reprehensible, it’s not illogical for Suthep and his followers to hope that their intransigence may be rewarded by a military intervention that would deliver them what they’ve been unable to win at the ballot box. That hope may now be diminishing: if it does, more peaceful options may finally emerge.

 

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