BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of Thais prayed for peace and unity in Bangkok on Wednesday, a week after a deadly military crackdown on protesters sparked a terrifying night of arson and riots that levelled buildings and killed 54 people.
But analysts say without major reforms to a political system that protesters claim favours an “establishment elite” over the rural masses, such prayers and forgiveness will not end a polarising crisis costing the economy billions of dollars.
Hundreds of yellow-robed Buddhist monks received food from well wishers along a shopping strip occupied by anti-government protesters for six weeks until they were dispersed by troops and armoured vehicles last week.
Next to them were Christian, Muslim and Sikh leaders, who also conducted prayers to bless the riot-torn city of 15 million people as predominantly Buddhist Thailand grapples with widening social and political rifts that have spiralled dangerously into the open in the past five years.
“It is very important for all of us in Bangkok to forgive and move ahead,” said Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, a member of the ruling Democrat Party, who hosted the “Restore the City With Religious Ceremony” event.
He told Reuters Television the event was meant to “wipe away a bad path and to create a better future”.
That may be difficult.
After nine weeks of the worst political violence in modern Thai history, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has embraced a reconciliation plan of political reforms, social justice and an investigation into clashes that killed 85 people and wounded nearly 2,000, mostly in fighting between protesters and troops.
But analysts say the plan is unlikely to get far without the participation of an anti-government movement that broadly backs ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and claims Abhisit has no popular mandate after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote to head a coalition assembled with help from the military.
The mostly rural and urban poor “red shirt” protesters consider last week’s tough crackdown an indicator of the double standards in a political system they say favours the rich over the poor. They want immediate elections and demand the government shoulder some blame for recent violence.
“Lasting reconciliation begins with accountability,” said Elaine Pearson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, calling on Abhisit to set up an independent commission to carry out a “prompt, comprehensive, and impartial investigation” into abuses by all sides during the protests.
In 2008, yellow-shirted protesters who opposed Thaksin’s allies in the previous government occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and then blockaded Bangkok’s main airport until a court expelled the government.
Instead of going to jail, one of the figures of that movement, Kasit Piromya, went on to become foreign minister.
Leaders of the red shirts, however, face criminal charges.
Cases like that are at the heart of the discontent among the rural and urban poor in a country where the richest 20 percent of the population earn about 55 percent of the income while the poorest fifth get 4 percent.
“When the leader of the party we voted for became the prime minister, we saw street protests, an illegal siege on the prime minister’s office, and the airport,” said Thamrong Phuttichote, a food vendor in Ratchaburi province, two hours’ drive from Bangkok, who supports the red shirts.
“But their leaders still walk freely. This is what I called injustice,” Thamrong said. (Additional reporting by Papitchaya Boonngok; Editing by Jason Szep)