The explosion of violence in the heart of Bangkok on Thursday night took one life and packed the emergency rooms of hospitals in the Silom area with the wounded. It was a stark reminder of the urgent need to put an end to the insanity that is tearing the country apart and turning the Thai capital into a city of chaos ruled by the preachers of hate. If order cannot be restored then more innocent people will die and it will take a generation to heal the wounds.
As public anger grows and positions harden, the time for a negotiated settlement to end the standoff between the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and the government is fast running out. But the calls from respected former leaders, academics and foreign governments urging restraint and pleading for the two sides to get together are growing louder.
The reason is simple. Talks would cool down the heated situation and allow all parties some breathing space. Even though this is the best way out of the dilemma and the only solution that would provide a respite, it will be difficult to bring about. Neither side thinks it has anything new to bring to the table. The government has offered elections this year. If it agrees to the key UDD demand of a drastically shortened timeframe for a dissolution of parliament, the budget and other important legislation would not be passed on schedule and the country would have to flounder along under a caretaker government with no power to take policy decisions. That could lead to a repeat of the situation that frustrated national progress for nearly six months in 2006. The money dried up because the budget had not been passed before then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra resigned. Surely no one with the country's best interests at heart would want that again.
Fortunately, some of the best minds in the country are coming together to offer possible solutions. For instance, Gothom Arya, director of Mahidol University's Research Centre on Peace Building, has highlighted a proposal by the Santi Prachatham Network, which is a coalition of scholars and social advocates, suggesting the government dissolve the House within five months as a compromise. Mr Gothom believes the proposed five-month time frame should be long enough for the government to prepare the 2011 central budget and solve other pressing issues. This would at least serve as a starting point for discussions and end the dialogue of the deaf that exists at present. To prevent grandstanding or point-scoring, any future talks should not be live telecasts, nor should they have preconditions.
None of the other alternatives are attractive. Using force to take back the main protest site at Ratchaprasong is risky because the demonstrators are so well-entrenched. A bloodbath could result and even if the site was secured, the protesters would just regroup elsewhere. But given the enormous political stakes, the commercial significance of the location and the army's exasperation, this remains a possible scenario even though it is fraught with peril. Innocent people have died, and will continue to die, so long as mob rule and the forces of anarchy are tolerated. Some 63,000 people have been thrown out of work and the number is rising daily. The dead, injured and unemployed are not part of the establishment elite; many are office workers, soldiers serving their country and students. The economy is suffering and the tourism industry, which employs two million people, is in despair. Pressure is building for the government to act decisively.
The negotiating table remains by far the best option, but the clock is ticking.