During a recent visit to Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former ‘S21’ prison of the Khmer Rouge, I found myself constantly muttering to myself about the madness of it all. The hundreds of photographs, the torture implements, the school rooms transformed into cells, and the stories of survivors and guards alike, provide a brutal reminder of the limitless potential for hate in society. And one story of a prison guard living in a small community, still not reconciled with this past, reminded me that reconciliation is no fait accompli after conflict. That this visit took place at the same time that the Ratchaprasong standoff in Bangkok was at its height reminded me both that the reconciliation in Thailand is still a relatively accessible goal but that the wounds of the recent conflict in Bangkok could also spread further. I often talk about conflict being a slippery slope. So perhaps we need to ask, is genuine reconciliation a mountain to difficult to climb?
Weeks on, the question now being asked is “What happens next?” The dead have been cremated. The injured are in recovery. The burnt buildings are vacant shells and rubble. The red shirt leaders are under arrest or in hiding. The parliamentarians are back in the house. And everything is uncertain.
In the aftermath, the political contest has converged on the notion of truth. In the hands of the media, the spin doctors, and the propagandists, truth has become a malleable tool. It is often said that histories are written by the ‘winners’. There is an apparent struggle to claim victory in this conflict, and with it the ‘right’ to define the historical truths. However, as the debate revolves around who fired the bullet that killed, of which I can only repeat the importance of an independent inquiry into deaths and other violent acts, there is a bigger picture behind the conflict, the frame through which reconciliation should be addressed.
For me, there are several underlying ‘truths’ at play. Firstly, we must be clear that this is a national conflict. Directly, it has affected many, but indirectly it affects all. People have died and been injured. Some have spilt blood and many have spilt tears. Many openly wear colours. Some are missing. Others are in hiding. Several are in custody. Even more join in online debates, often in the form of hate fests. Some argue with friends and family. Some have lost jobs and business. Almost all consider their vote more seriously. All have an opinion.
Secondly, Thailand has changed. Whether for good or not is unclear, but there is clearly a schism in Thai society. Yes, it is about class, even taking into account the diversity of the UDD membership. Yes, it is between city and country, in spite of the majority of Ratchaprasong protestors being Bangkok residents and the strong Lanna/Isaan regional identity. Yes, it is between rich and poor, in spite of the relative wealth of many of the UDD leadership. And yes, it is between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin supporters. None of these divisions are absolute, but they are real. They are evident. They have always been there. But now they are being contested.
At the heart of the contest are the words ‘democracy’ and ‘corruption’. They mark the principles upon which the popular mobilizations were built. And they mark the ideological lines of division between Yellow and Red. The emergence of Thaksin as Prime Minister was on the back of the people’s ‘democratic’ constitutional reforms amidst clouds of corrupt politics. The support for Thaksin was built on populism and the opposition to Thaksin grew on the back of the excesses. Fast money, personal greed, and a legacy of political elitism and opportunism derailed the democracy train. The military coup occurred on the back of this legacy, a culture of elite rule, corrupted democracy and a militarized politic. The slide began. Appointed government… Constitutional reform… Court action… Electoral fraud… Party annulment… People’s power… Colour shirts… Civil disobedience… Street violence… State of emergency… Death… Arson… Calls of double standards… Claims of war crimes… Charges of terrorism… Conflict is a slippery slope. And noticeably, the themes of ‘democracy’ and ‘corruption’ fade into the background as the conflict deepens.
In decades of observing conflicts in different settings, different contexts, different nations, I hold the belief that peace is a precious commodity. So I am an advocate for peace. But I also hold that peace without justice is not a lasting peace. So let’s start with the discussion on reconciliation through the lens of fairness and justice. Reconciliation has become the new currency in the political debate, but has already become a tool of distortion. Actually, reconciliation needs that element that has been missing from the political landscape throughout the conflict – sincerity. Where truth is a contested word, sincerity is a missing word. Name a sincere political leader and perhaps there exists a path to reconciliation. Show me a sincere public and certainly there is a path to reconciliation. But let’s not fool ourselves. It is a distant vision.
So what can bring about the dream of reconciliation? Well a bit of self reflection instead of the constant criticism only of the other would be a good start. Despite talk of reconciliation, there is still a winner-takes-all sense to the conflict. This simply feeds into that slippery slope – of increased violence, of security state control, of civil conflict. We have already slipped down too far and it will take some effort to find our way off the slope. There needs to be recognition that this is a moment of political transformation. Some parties may not want to acknowledge this, but it is clear that the recent status quo is no longer a sustainable option.
For the wealthy elite and many of the Bangkok middle class, not only should the notion of the ‘right to rule’ be questioned, but the question of wealth should be part of the equation. The issue of income gap is not simply an exercise in statistics. There are philosophical and ethical questions. Do you often ask yourself, how much do you actually need? How much do you actually deserve? Is it fair that you are always being served but never serve yourself? These are legitimate questions that become more prominent amidst images of people weeping over burnt shopping centres instead of for the victims of the political violence.
There are some discriminations in Thai society that have gradually morphed into anti-Red/pro-Red profiles – the beauty of light skin versus the ugliness of dark skin, the privilege of the rich versus the suffering of the poor, the honour of the educated versus the shame of the uneducated, the aspiration of the office job versus the desperation of the farming life. Every soap opera, every advertisement, even national school curricula perpetuate these discriminations. If you accept this, you perpetuate this. And at the heart of these stereotypes are grievances that are clearly an element of the current conflict. Addressing them is part of the reconciliation process.
Likewise, for the farmers, merchants, taxi drivers, workers, activists, and business people that make up the diverse mix of the Red Shirts, there is an imperative to take democracy seriously to continue to advocate it. As has already been evident, democracy cannot function as a token gesture – an election doesn’t make for a democratic society. Corruption may be perceived as the dirt on everyone’s shoe in Thailand, but there are scales, levels, limits. The end of corruption is clearly fanciful, but there do need to be standards built on a social ethic. As leader, Thaksin’s greed was excessive and should never have been tolerated in a Prime Minister. Likewise, abuses of power at provincial, district, and village levels need to be kept in check. The words ‘Democracy’ and ‘Against Dictatorship’ need to be taken seriously as the old systems of patronage are closer to dictatorship than democracy. Leaders need to be held to account. A democratic movement needs democratic leaders. And wouldn’t it be refreshing to see women leaders take the stage at this point.
For supporters of Thaksin, the return to the status quo of a Thaksin administration is also not possible, irrespective of the broader legal play. There is simply too much water under the bridge for Thaksin to re-emerge as a democratic leader. Similarly, the Abhisit government lacks the political legitimacy to reconcile the nation. While the question of the government’s legal status is debated, it is the bloodied hands and reputation that undermine its standing as representative of the Thai society as a whole. And beyond this is the issue of democracy in Thailand. Can a legitimate form of democracy emerge?
To bring about political legitimacy, the return to electoral democracy is a necessity. As a minority-led government, the third to be installed since the last election, and coming on the back of a military-led government and constitutional reform, the ‘popular’ credentials of the Abhisit government are questionable. And regardless of legalistic arguments, public perception remains a measuring stick as to political legitimacy. As a result, at the very least, Abhisit must understand that his government has from the outset been viewed as transitional, even tolerated by many in opposition, but with the expectation that the nation will return to the ballot box in a reasonable time. Not only has he overstretched that timeframe, but he is also now recognized as a party to the conflict rather than a mediator of national reconciliation. He should certainly step back from this role, and in the current context, his resignation as Prime Minister would be the genuine reconciliatory act.
It is currently impossible to view the Thai state without wondering about the balance of power between the government and the military. As observers look nervously across the border to the military junta of Burma, we can see that military dictatorship represents the base of some of those slippery slopes. At the same time, we can see to the south the critical process of demilitarization in the rebirth of democracy in Indonesia, where the call of ‘back to the barracks’ became has been a key part of the political transformation. It is time to ask ‘how long does a State of Emergency need to go on before it becomes a state of control’? Let us not pretend that the army is a pacifying force in Thai society, as evident in the long running conflict in the Deep South of Thailand. We often hear reports of the reluctance of military leaders to become too active on the political stage, so should there not be a consensus for the soldiers to return to the barracks?
Likewise, in the opposition corner, Thaksin’s pre-eminent position in the conflict is integral to its resolution. As I suggested earlier, the ‘glory days’ of his majority government have been overwhelmed by the weight of divisiveness within Thai society. As an individual, he is not greater than the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or Red-Shirt movement, but his influence is too great to be healthy. Again, the perception of Thaksin’s role is an obstacle to the Red Shirt’s political legitimacy, and the stated separation of movement and figurehead, a consensual divorce, would be a powerful reconciliatory action.
In the same breath, the UDD or Red Shirt movement needs to clarify itself. The disputes between leaders, the formation of splinter groups, protestor anger over the surrender, the divergence between peaceful pretenses and hate speech, and the implicit and explicit roles in the Bangkok violence, have all undermined the credibility of the Red Shirts. Too many people died for the cause, and too many others lied for the cause, but it is the lack of consensus about the true cause, irrespective of campaign slogans, that has hurt the Red Shirt movement. It may seem odd to suggest, in light of the current defensive or regrouping stance of the movement, but the priority of the UDD or Red Shirts is to reconcile with itself, to become a genuine people’s movement.
This brings us to today’s popular ideological word – ‘terrorism’. Our great teacher, history, also reminds us that governments that use the term ‘terrorist’ against their own citizens are showing the symptoms of hard-line, repressive control, even ruling through terror. To see images of unarmed middle aged women with arms in the air under the threat of a soldier’s rifle, can anyone in their right mind contemplate the notion of the terrorism in this image? This is the implication, in spite of talk of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Reds. Let’s be clear. 9-11 was terrorism. Central World Plaza was arson. The term ‘terrorist’ is a dangerous term in that has been usurped by governments to justify the repression of resistance movements. In the hands of the security apparatus, yesterday’s freedom fighter can become today’s terrorist. And through the lens of reconciliation, this can do little more than breed rather than pacify violence. The language of terror must be removed from the picture or reconciliation is truly a futile exercise.
Similarly, censorship inevitably proves to be more dangerous that the information it seeks to stifle. Hindsight shows us that had the closure of the Thaicom satellite fomented the anger of the Red Shirt movement. Not only is it an attack on one of our fundamental freedoms – the freedom of speech, but it is also a futile exercise in the era of global communications, where facebook, twitter, and the mobile phone easily outpace the vigilant eye of the censor and international media agencies report outside the government line. Reconciliation demands an open, free and fair debate, and Thailand’s current and historical censorship laws, severely constrain this.
The term ‘double standard’ is another key term that has emerged within the lexicon of conflict. In light of the recent charges of terrorism, the perception of different treatment of Yellow Shirt and Red Shirt protestors and leaders remains ever present. If security laws are to be used, they must be used fairly and justly. And while both ASTV and PTV engage in propaganda and hate speech, neither should be closed down. Alternatively, we should ask, how one can be closed and not the other. Double standards, real or perceived, are a significant obstacle to any process of reconciliation.
There is no rulebook on reconciliation. Nor does a roadmap for peace ensure that we will take the best path. And whilst my suggestions for reconciliation may appear idealistic, the alternatives to a peaceful resolution of this national conflict are a divided society, perhaps in the form of a repressive security state (ie. Burma), or in the form of a parliamentary dictatorship (ie. Singapore), or in the form of ongoing civil violence (ie. East Timor), or in the form of low intensity conflict (ie. Deep South of Thailand). Any victory in the current conflict can only be a hollow victory if it doesn’t address the fundamental divisions. It is easy to hate the other. But it is also impossible to live together peacefully in this situation. National reconciliation requires a sincere process of political transformation. The question is now whether Thai society has the will to reconcile in the name of a peaceful, just democracy.
An Alternative Roadmap for Reconciliation
Highway 1: Sincerity
Basically this means cooling down on the propaganda, the lies, the win-at-all-costs agendas, the hate fests, the double standards, and even starting to use a bit of honesty, before anyone even dares use the term reconciliation
Major Intersection National Conflict
This is not about a handful of Red Shirts, a handful of Yellow Shirts, some soldiers, politicians, media, and a man overseas, it is a conflict that affects all in Thailand, and many outside Thailand
Detour: Accept Political Change
Thailand’s political landscape has changed, the idea that the rural mass population will become passive again is impossible, and the depth of division in Thai society says that something must give, a new political era is happening, like it or not
Service Lane: Democracy
As many have suggested Thailand has barely ever really entertained true democracy, it is not a half-way house type of thing, it needs justice, free and fair elections, sooner not later, independent courts, clean and colourless policing, and a return to people’s constitution
This is cultural, Thailand’s legacy of patronage, and has to be reduced for democracy to work, corruption is not simply about skimming budgets, but a political tumor, and needs to be worked on as part of any democracy agenda
Soi 1: Truth & Justice
The April and May tragedies will not blow away in the wind, an independent inquiry must try to give some meaning to the terms ‘truth’ and ‘justice’
Soi 2: Freedom of Speech
Censorship and the laws that deny open debate must be removed as a prerequisite for democracy and a reconciled society, anything else smells of state repression, and in the midst of global free media, a fool’s paradise
Soi 3: Removal of Terror Speak
Terrorist charges against ones political opponents are desperate acts of despots-in-waiting, let the civil courts
Soi 4: Thaksin’s and Abhisit’s Quiet Exits
Both their legacies are too divisive for a reconciled Thailand so they must remove themselves from the picture
Soi 5: Demilitarization
Too much political influence, internal divisions, extended emergency decree, and shooting Thai citizens, paints a disturbing picture, time to return to the barracks, remove the State of Emergency, and unravel the military-political ties
Tollgate: Less Greed, Shared Wealth
Surely baking in the stifling heat is reminder enough of the destructive potential of global warning, and this alone suggests we all need to consume less, but a reconciled Thailand needs everyone to work no bridging this gap, not just with taxes, but also through changing our habits and behavior
Yes, such a roadmap for reconciliation is idealistic and incomplete. For obvious reasons, the ‘elephant in the room’ has not been discussed in depth. I just put this forward as an alternative to a roadcrash, if it has not already happened…
[The author is a writer, peace worker, artist and academic living in between countryside and city in Thailand, currently wearing a dull brown shirt with lime green patterns.]