Thailand looks ahead after turbulent year

Red-shirt protesters at their barricade in Bangkok on 19 April 2010
Image caption Will 2011 bring reconciliation between red-shirt protesters and the government?

Even by the standards of Thailand's recent history, 2010 was a politically turbulent year.

Anti-government protesters occupied parts of Bangkok for two months from March to May.

They came to demand early elections, claiming that because the current coalition government took power via a parliamentary agreement rather than a fresh popular vote, it did not represent the will of the people.

Many of the protesters, known as the red-shirts, were supporters of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

But increasingly the agenda of what was essentially a broad coalition opposed to the current status quo moved beyond the interests of one man.

The protracted demonstration was eventually brought to an end by the army on 19 May, but not before more than 90 people had lost their lives.

At its end the political rally had descended into violent confrontation, with security forces and protesters fighting for control of the streets of the Thai capital.

Still fearful

Bangkok has bounced back remarkably quickly, but that does not mean people have forgotten the dark days of May.

Jidapa and her mother Rungruang own a noodle cafe in the Din Daeng area of the city.

Image caption Jidapa and her mother say they hope the situation in Bangkok remains stable

When I first met them, theirs was the only place open in a side street of shuttered shops. The main road was blocked by burning barricades.

Young men launched home-made rockets towards soldiers, who were hunkered down behind their own sandbags, their rifles trained back down towards the protesters.

Din Daeng has now returned to bustling normality. Buses, motorbikes and trucks rumble along the multi-lane main road, and the side street is now full of food sellers and market stalls.

At the height of the troubles, Jidapa wanted to leave, but her mother refused, so they stuck it out. But it was a nervous existence.

"The sound of gunfire and explosions really upset my two young sons," Jidapa remembered, as she and her mother worked side by side, chopping vegetables and ladling steaming noodles into bowls, to cater to the lunchtime rush.

"We slept in shifts so that someone was always keeping guard. I hope it never happens again," she said.

Then she added with a slightly uncertain smile: "Things have to get better".

Government survives

The government says things are steadily improving, so much so that it may call an election before the deadline of the end of 2011.

The state of emergency which was in place in Bangkok for eight months was lifted in December, reflecting, according to the government spokesman, Panitan Watanayagorn, a much calmer security situation.

"Of course differences remain in Thailand. But Thai society has now learned how to engage in these difficult questions with peaceful ways," Mr Panitan told the BBC.

"For our part, the government will look for a certain date for a general election, based on the evaluation that the rules of the game will be accepted."

The opposition has long contended that the rules have been stacked against them since the 2006 coup.

As last year drew to a close, they were crying foul once more.

The Constitutional Court twice dismissed cases, on procedural grounds, of alleged electoral fraud against the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

It was a relief for the incumbent no doubt - Mr Abhisit faced a possible ban from politics and the dissolution of his party.

But the decisions also reinforced perceptions among anti-government forces of double standards in Thailand's judicial system.

After the coup two political parties supportive of the deposed Mr Thaksin were forced, by order of the same court, to disband.

Red-shirts revive

There are also signs that the red-shirts are regrouping.

For the past couple of months, up to 10,000 demonstrators have gathered at the two areas in Bangkok that they once occupied.

Image caption Thida Thavornseth says the red-shirts want to change Thailand

They have come to remember those who died during last year's protests and to renew their calls for change.

Many of the movement's senior leaders are in jail, facing charges of terrorism relating to last year's protests.

But others, such as Thida Thavornseth, are now stepping forward to take their places.

She is the wife of one of the red-shirt leaders accused of terrorist offences, Weng Tojirakan, but is a political veteran in her own right.

Sitting at a table in her garden, she leafed through a large pile of photographs, some graphically showing the injuries suffered during last year's confrontations.

Violence, she insists, is not part of the mainstream red-shirt movement.

But the ultimate goal is radical; a fundamental reform of Thailand's power structures.

"We want to change Thailand, to be a country like other civilised countries, simply democracy with the King as the head of state," Ms Thida said.

"Democracy, but not just for the elite. We want liberal ideas."

So could an election deliver that?

"I don't think so" she said. "But it should be better. We can wait. The poor have to wait. Fight and wait."

So much for hopes of reconciliation - the bloodshed and bitterness of recent history still infects the present.

'Move forward'

Voranai Vanijaka, a political and social commentator for the Bangkok Post newspaper, thinks talk of reconciliation is misguided.

Image caption Voranai Vanijaka believes Thailand must move forward

In his view, Thailand would be better off if people learned to accept their differences and stopped blaming each other for the 91 deaths.

"We all killed them, all 63.7m of us," he said emphatically.

"Because this is our country. This is our responsibility. So don't just point fingers. Accept that it's all our fault, collectively, and find a way to move forward."

That is easier said than done. There are still deep divisions within Thailand, competing visions of the future.

The question is whether, in an election year, those arguments can be settled peacefully at the ballot box, or if the battle for supremacy will return to the streets.

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