Thai Religious Leaders Asked to Fight Violence

Archbishop Warns That Civil War Could Be Near

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BANGKOK, Thailand, MAY 19, 2010 ( Catholic leaders are appealing to all religions to help in conflict mediation in order to end violent conflicts in Bangkok that have claimed 36 lives.

The recent conflict has taken place between Thai government authorities and members of the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the «red shirts.»

The red shirt group, which claims that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiava’s administration took power illegitimately, has been organizing anti-government rallies since April 2009. These demonstrations resulted in violent clashes with the military over the past few months.

Last month, the protesters entrenched themselves in the business section of Bangkok. On April 10, military troops tried to regain control of these parts of the capitol city, and 25 people were killed, with 800 others injured.

On April 22, grenade explosions killed at least one person and injured 85 others. Six days later, another violent clash killed at least one soldier and wounded 16 protestors.

The conflict has been steadily escalating, with pro-government demonstrations forming alongside the anti-government protests.

The government announced its determination to definitively end the entrenchment of the «red shirts» in Bangkok «as soon as possible,» reported the Eglises d’Asie agency of the Foreign Missions of Paris.

Water and electricity have been cut off in the neighborhood, and the garbage is not being collected.


In the face of this increasing tension, the president of the Thai bishops’ conference, Archbishop Louis Chamniern Santisukniram of Thare and Nonseng, appealed for the «intervention of religious leaders» in order to «explore new ways of dialogue and mediation, to offer a peaceful outcome of the crisis.»
On Monday, Satit Wonghnongtaey, an assistant to the prime minister, stated that the operation to extract the protestors «will be executed as soon as possible.»

The authorities will «inform the public when the operations are over,» he told journalists.
Inside the camp of the «red shirts,» protest leaders said that women, children and elderly people would not be used as human shields amid the conflicts.

In fact, on Sunday afternoon an attempt was made to move them to a «neutral zone,» in a nearby Buddhist pagoda, the temple of Pathumwanaram. There, various agencies, among them Catholic charitable organizations, were on hand to help, but both the army as well as the «red shirt» leaders prevented the aid workers from accessing the pagoda.

According to a member of Mercy Center, one of the Catholic agencies that attempted to intervene on the spot, «mistrust prevails on one side and the other,» the Eglises d’Asie agency reported.
On Friday, Archbishop Santisukniram urged religious leaders to intervene publicly to obtain peace.

One month earlier, on April 15, the archbishop of Bangkok, Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, a top Muslim leader and a representative of the Buddhism’s supreme patriarch made a joint appeal for prayer.

Go farther
According to Archbishop Santisukniram, this time, because of the risk of «civil war,» it is necessary to go farther.

He noted that the religious leaders «enjoy the trust, credibility and esteem of the population. Hence they might be very useful today to overcome the impasse and defeat violence.»
In a country where Catholics are a small minority — only a portion of the 0.5% of the population that are Christians — the Church cannot act alone, the prelate said.

However, he added, «we will never stop saying that the only way is dialogue: Arms must be laid down and violence given up to find a way out of this crisis.»

The archbishop continued: «I fear that the country is at the brink of a civil war, which, if not arrested, will be a catastrophe. […] In this tragic phase of our history, I see persons without hope and fatalists.

«There is much fear. The ‘country of the smile’ seems to have become a ‘country of sorrow.’

«Today we suffer together and, at this moment, it is like a tunnel where the end is not in sight.»

«Between the sides, there is evident incomprehension,» Archbishop Santisukniram pointed out.
<br>He continued: «Neither one of the two factions wants to give in; each seeks to defend its interests, without thinking of the rest of the country’s population or of the common good.

«The government accuses the leaders of the red protest of being ‘enemies of the crown’ and ‘traitors of the homeland.’ This doesn’t seem to me to be the truth but rather a way of discrediting the protest in the eyes of the country.»

The prelate asserted that the executive powers «should act with more patience and explore new ways of dialogue and mediation.»
He noted that «we, religious leaders, are willing to offer our contribution and we can play a role of mediation between the parties if we are asked to do so.»

«At this moment, the population has greater confidence in the religious leaders than in the political leaders,» the archbishop affirmed. «We are willing to act on the spot and to work for the good of the country, to avoid blood being shed again.»

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