Back down from brinkmanship

In the classic 1955 James Dean film Rebel Without A Cause, reckless youths play a dangerous game whereby two drivers race their cars towards each other at speed; the first to swerve off course to avoid a crash would lose and be called "chicken."

Many times, the fear of losing face overcomes common sense, and with neither side backing down, both die in the crash - the worst possible outcome.

"Brinkmanship" was the chicken game played by the nuclear superpowers during the Cold War, risking mankind's annihilation. Bertrand Russell wrote: "It is thought on both sides that the statesmen on one side are displaying a high degree of wisdom and courage, and only the statesmen on the other side are reprehensible. This, of course, is absurd. Both are to blame for playing such an incredibly dangerous game."

Present-day Thai political brinkmanship is being played out on the streets of Bangkok. Both sides of the conflict are raising the stakes to a disturbingly high level, threatening the basic fabric that has held Thai society together for generations.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led by Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang, views the escalation as a continuing venture from before the coup d'etat of Sept 19, 2006. Their campaign is anti-Thaksin, anti-constitutional amendment and a declaration to protect the Kingdom from any republican threat. Emotions are running high, as Chamlong has declared the PAD will fight till it "wins".

The opposition Democrat party has joined in the fray. The general public watching the events unfold on TV is curious to know whether there is indeed an invisible hand behind the scenes.

Equally vocal is the government and the ruling People Power party (PPP), attempting to reverse the effects of the coup and regain political power like there is no tomorrow.

Hence the proposed constitutional amendments, the constant testing of powers with the various independent agencies and the courts, and the actions of organised anti-PAD groups.

The issue of Jakrapob Penkair's sensitive remarks on the monarchy have added to the confrontation. The public generally perceives that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is still active behind the scenes.

Over the past week, after last Sunday's scrimmage, Thais have nervously been anticipating a final showdown. This weekend will be no different. We all seem to be caught in the middle of glaring headlights of two reckless cars running towards a collision.

For the sake of the nation, it is time to back down from brinkmanship. Put on the brakes, reverse the gears and think rationally.

First, can we hear just the substance of the issues being debated and not the shouting-match, name-calling rhetoric both sides are using? Rhetoric stirs ugly emotions. Start a dialogue. Both parties need to make their stance peacefully, in a civilised manner, and not make a scene.

Evidence backing all accusations must be shown; no more half-truths, half-lies and half-baked theories about why the other side is wrong.

The Thai press must separate fact from fiction and not become a propaganda tool of either side.

Extreme measures that could lead to or provoke violence must be avoided at all cost. Both sides must be reminded that a drop of any blood spilled is the blood of our common ancestors.

For the government (and all elected officials for that matter): you represent 65 million Thais, so it is your duty to serve them and not the specific individuals who hold your election coffers.

PM Samak must take charge. Get rid of the offending ministers. Decide on issues. Priority No. 1 is the economy. You have been elected to bring back trust and confidence and the promise of prosperity. So do your job. Tackle that successfully and the public will forgive your past sins.

Justice must be served.

Assure that due process, a free and fair justice system works and is not interfered with. If you happen to notice, it is the only system His Majesty the King now addresses.

Democracy is not supposed to be a game of brinkmanship. It certainly is not a game to be decided by street rules.

So, to make it work, it is time to step back, fire up the political will and find common ground - before the lights go out and the clashes sound.

Suranand Vejjajiva served in the Thaksin Shinawatra cabinet and is now a political analyst. Bangkok Post