The siege of Bangkok's airports that is into its sixth day is being accompanied by increasing lawlessness. On Saturday a convoy of armed occupiers attacked a police checkpoint, causing the officers to flee, smashing vehicles and making off with shields and other equipment. One policeman has been taken hostage. Armed thugs set upon a local photographer for a major daily who was taking shots of them assaulting another person.
Overnight a grenade was fired into Government House, where demonstrators have been encamped since August. As investigators have no access to the compound, it is unlikely that there will be any evidence collected to identify the perpetrators. Protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul has said that he will fight to the death, by which evidently he means that others should also die.
Events of the last week have shattered the carefully nurtured image of stability that set Thailand apart from most of its neighbours. As tens of thousands of visitors and businesspeople look for alternative ways out of the country, at least half-a-million workers are already expected to lose their jobs as a result of the damage caused to its economy. Confidence in all parts of government has plummeted. Despite almost universal condemnation of the takeover at home and abroad, the administration has seemingly been unable to respond effectively.
That a relatively small radical outfit under the unlikely name of People's Alliance for Democracy has been able to disrupt a leading Asian country is due as much to state institutions being absent as it is to the group's extremist tactics. This absence consists of two parts. First, it is in the lack of leadership and strategy from the government and heads of the security forces. That the legislative arm of Thailand has been unable to function since November 24 when a planned session was cancelled because of rallies is a major cause of this crisis in leadership. Second, the absence is in the lack of police and other security personnel physically present and with appropriate instructions on how to perform their jobs. That officers have fled barricades rather than defend them is as much a result of lost faith in their own authority and lack of command control as it is due to the ferocity of their assailants.
An effective solution to the impasse will only be found when this absence of leadership and personnel is addressed. Accordingly, the Asian Human Rights Commission urges that parliament is immediately recalled and remains in permanent emergency session until the crisis is ended. The police and army must spare no resources to ensure that it is possible for the members of parliament to sit in safety and perform their task of taking vital decisions and being held accountable for them. Already the prime minister has replaced the police chief. The same must be the fate of the army commander if he fails to do his duty.
The deadlock will not be broken with dramatic acts of violence or further coups against the electoral process. Instead it requires the thoughtful application of an intelligent strategy, the determined presence of police and other state personnel performing their ordinary functions, and above all, a functioning parliament to decide on what must be done and be held answerable for whatever happens. This much can and must be done.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.