Thailand Heading Towards Civil War: Bishop

The head of the Catholic Church in Thailand has warned that the country is on a path towards civil war unless the two sides in conflict begin serious negotiations, which could go more smoothly if religious leaders were involved.

"We cannot stress enough the point that the only way is dialogue: we need to lay down arms and abandon the violent solution to the crisis," Archbishop Louis Chamniern, president of the Bishops' Conference of Thailand, told Fides news service. "I fear that the country is at the beginning of a civil war that, if it is not stopped, will become a catastrophe."

Chamniern added: "An intervention of religious leaders might help to explore new avenues of dialogue and mediation, and provide a peaceful solution to the crisis."

"The population, at this time, places greater confidence in religious leaders than in political leaders. And we would be ready to take the field and start working for the good of the country to stop further bloodshed," he said.

Violence has been raging in Bangkok for nearly a week now since Maj. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, military head of the "red shirt" protestors, was shot by a sniper.

The protests, which have claimed the lives of 37 people, are the latest events in a political crisis that has gripped the nation for nearly five years now, pitting the impoverished red shirts against the country's upper class.

Prior to Sawasdiphol's shooting, tensions were rising in the country as red shirt leaders called for the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who the protestors say was brought to power under military influence.

Abhisit offered to hold elections this coming November, but withdrew that offer after government requests to end the protests were ignored. The red shirts have said that they will end protests and begin negotiations only if the government first withdraws its troops.

Chamniern has implored the government to end the violence and return to the negotiating table, saying that if violence continues there will be a "real massacre."

"We ask the government to be patient with the protesters," Chamniern told Fides, adding that protests in previous years were handled by the Thai government non-violently.

"Why act differently now? We ask the government for more dialogue and more sacrifice," Chamniern said. "In our smallness, we continue to pray for non-violence, peace, and harmony in the country."

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