By JOCELYN GECKER / AP WRITER
BANGKOK — A special joint session of Parliament aimed at resolving Thailand’s political crisis degenerated into partisan bickering on Wednesday, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pointing fingers at each other for deepening the divide in Thai society.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva opened the two-day debate by listing the recent violence that has battered Thailand’s image and embarrassed his government—rioting last week by anti-government protesters, a violent attack on his car that he narrowly escaped, the storming of a regional Asian summit that forced its cancellation.
“Today is the day that we decide if we will use [Parliament] to heal the wounds of society, or if we will be another part of the conflict,” Abhisit told lawmakers as he urged them to “help Thailand find a way out” of the crisis through political reforms.
But few lawmakers proposed concrete solutions and the argument turned to who started the violence, whether soldiers who dispersed protesters killed some and hid their bodies and larger questions about what protesters say is injustice and discrimination in the country’s troubled democracy.
Many opposition lawmakers accused Abhisit of inflaming the situation by imposing a state of emergency in Bangkok on April 12. The decree bans gatherings of more than five people, forbids news reports that threaten public order and allows the government to call up military troops to quell unrest—as it did last week.
“This emergency decree should be used as briefly as possible,” Abhisit told lawmakers, adding that he hoped to lift the decree “within days.”
The recent protests were part of Thailand’s long-running political turmoil, which revolves around former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s ouster in a 2006 coup.
Thaksin’s supporters, who are known as the “red shirts,” rioted in Bangkok last week, calling for Abhisit’s resignation and new elections. Two people were killed and more than 130 injured in the unrest.
The red shirts, mostly from the rural poor who benefited from Thaksin’s social welfare programs, claim Abhisit, who was appointed by Parliament in December, came to power illegitimately after court rulings removed two Thaksin-allied governments.
Their protests came after three years of sporadic protests by Thaksin’s opponents, the “yellow shirts,” whose rallies paved the way to the 2006 coup and the court dismissals of Thaksin’s allies. The yellow shirts come mainly from the urban, middle class and educated elite of Thai society, including royalists.
Chaiya Phromma, an opposition lawmaker and member of a pro-Thaksin party, accused the government of inflaming the crisis by using a heavy hand against Thaksin’s supporters. He and several opposition lawmakers argued that nothing was done to crack down on the yellow shirts who last year occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and then shut down Bangkok’s two airports for a week.
“It’s a shame that the government decided to use the emergency decree to disperse the demonstrations,” Chaiya said. “It’s as if the government wanted to turn politics into war.”
Sataporn Manirak, another lawmaker from the pro-Thaksin opposition, echoed the red shirts’ demands for Abhisit to step down.
“You have to take responsibility,” he said. “I am the first politician to call for Parliament to be dissolved.”
Many of the anti-government protesters want Thaksin—who went into self-imposed exile to avoid a corruption conviction—to return to power.
Abhisit’s government earlier said that legislators could use the debate to propose amendments to the constitution—a key demand of Thaksin’s allies—that could help end the political impasse. The debate was scheduled to run for two marathon, 12-hour sessions.
The current constitution was drafted under military guidance in 2007 after generals ousted Thaksin. It is aimed in part at keeping political leaders from holding too much power.
Last week’s violence has further damaged Thailand’s tourism industry and economy, already reeling after the airport closures. Thailand’s Tourism Council estimated that the number of foreign tourists is expected to drop from 14.1. million in 2008 to 10.9 million this year—a 23 percent plunge.