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Thai crisis grew out of 'big lie,' minister says

Korn Chatikavanij must have one of the most difficult jobs in the world right now. First, Thailand's Finance Minister has to convince foreign investors, and tourists, that it's safe to put money into his country after nine weeks of anti-government protests that culminated in a bloody military crackdown on the streets of Bangkok last week, one that saw scenes of the Thai capital in flames broadcast around the world.

And that might be the easy part of Mr. Korn's task. The other challenge is to come up with a program that will quickly address the grievances of Thailand's urban and rural poor, whose anger over perceived and real inequalities in society has repeatedly brought them into the streets under the Red Shirt banner.

The Thai government's first move, announced Tuesday after the cabinet's first meeting outside of a military base in more than two months, has been to offer hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to businesses in Bangkok and the surrounding area that were affected by the nine-week-long Red Shirt protests. While that gesture will help many directly affected by the protests, Mr. Korn acknowledged that it will look to some in the restless north and northeast of the country as if the government was once more taking care only of its Bangkok support base.

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The bigger struggle will be to convince the Red Shirt supporters - some of whom are promising a campaign of violence against the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva - that the government is serious about addressing their problems.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Korn said Thailand's ongoing crisis emanated from a "big lie" - that the protests were about achieving greater democracy and equality in Thailand - sold by fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and other Red Shirt leaders to their supporters. The Red Shirt propaganda was believable, Mr. Korn said, because it was based on some hard realities that Thailand now has to face.

"There was a strong element of truth that was attached to this big lie, and that truth is the fact that poverty exists in Thailand, much reduced over the past two decades, but definitely it still exists. More importantly, unequal access to economic sources of opportunity very much remain in our society. These are the realities that we as a society, and we in particular as a government, need to give the highest priority to in order to make sure that we take away the conditions by which people like Thaksin can use to galvanize people to support his hidden agendas."

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Speaking by telephone, Mr. Korn said the government was preparing a package of short-, medium- and long-term measures that would seek to address the income and opportunity gaps are that are behind Thailand's political divide. He suggested that immediate measures might include price subsidies and programs to provide the poor with easier access to capital and other resources.

Long-term, he said, the key to ending a political conflict that has taken on overtones of a class war is to end the existing disparities in access to education. Mr. Korn said the government needed to ensure that "wherever you were born and whichever level of wealth of the family you were born into, you have equal opportunity to access the same standard of education and therefore the same economic opportunities. For me, that's the crunch, that's the key."

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Mr. Korn also said that new elections - a key demand of the Red Shirt movement, which considers Mr. Abhisit's government illegitimate - would have to follow at some point, but not before the government was convinced they could be conducted in a safe and fair manner. Shortly before he ordered last week's military crackdown, Mr. Abhisit offered to hold an election on Nov. 14, a year before he legally has to step down, but not quite the snap vote the Red Shirts wanted.

The offer was rejected, but Mr. Korn said the government remained willing to hold a vote as soon as security conditions allowed for it. Candidates from the ruling Democrat Party, he said, currently wouldn't feel safe campaigning in areas that are Red Shirt strongholds, adding that the same might apply to Red Shirt candidates in other parts of the country. "We need it to cool down," he said.

That might take a while. Thailand's Criminal Court issued a new arrest warrant on charges of "terrorism" for Mr. Thaksin, whom the government blames for the recent turmoil that left at least 85 people dead and hundreds more injured. The billionaire Mr. Thaksin, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup after winning back-to-back elections, recently warned that the country might face guerrilla-style warfare after last week's crackdown by the military.

"The pro-democracy demonstrators are grassroots farmers and today's military-backed government is labelling them "terrorists," Mr. Thaksin said in an e-mail statement responding to the new charges against him. "The junta in Thailand today must be held to account for these deaths and abuses of human rights."

The irony of Mr. Korn's plight is that this was almost a very good year for Thailand. The country's economy grew a surprising 12 per cent in the first quarter of the year, which ended just before the Red Shirts first took to the streets on March 12. Mr. Korn said he had been hoping to see 7-per-cent growth for all of 2010, a figure that now seems well out of reach, with the state planning agency now setting a target of 3.5 to 4.5 per cent. "How far short [of 7-per-cent growth]we are depends very much on how fast we can convince ourselves, and then the world, that we are back to normal," he said.

Ron Hoffman, Canada's ambassador to Thailand, said those who were already investing in Thailand were concerned about recent events, but unlikely to flee the country because of what he called its strong economic foundation. The same, he said, applied to tourists who had come to Thailand in the past and who were aware that most of the recent violence was highly localized to certain parts of Bangkok The hard part for Thailand, Mr. Hoffman said, would be convincing first-time tourists and new investors that it was once again safe to visit or invest money in the country. The Canadian Embassy in Bangkok currently advises against all travel to the capital city and all but essential travel to other parts of Thailand, a warning Mr. Hoffman suggested could be eased if a significant amount of time passes without new incidences of violence.

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"This country is at a more fundamental crossroads than it has been in at least the last couple of generations. This country has to make a decision about whether it's going to pull back from division and conflict," Mr. Hoffman said, adding that investors were now expecting some kind of government effort to better distribute wealth to different sectors of society. "The next few months and the next few years are obviously crucial."

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