It is been more than three months since the violent crackdown on the anti-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (also known as the red shirts) in downtown Bangkok. The military crackdown resulted in the death of 91 people, most of them unarmed civilians, with hundreds of people injured. The event was the worst massacre in Thailand’s recent history.
The red shirts are mostly urban and rural poor and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in September 2006. They see the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva as being illegitimate, alleging that it has the backing of the military and the country’s political elites.
The unparalleled level of violence from the military prompted a small radical faction of the red shirts to set fire to Bangkok’s shopping malls and banks as a protest against the deaths of their fallen comrades as well as their anger about the political and economic inequalities between the country’s haves and have-nots.
Claiming to address the violence, the Democrat Party-led government of Mr. Abhisit, has appointed three committees to address the root causes of the recent violence and to push for political reforms. However, this process has been labeled as unilateral reconciliation and has been viewed by the red shirts, civil society organisations and academics as giving little room for a genuine participation from all groups.
When asked about his view of the national reconciliation efforts, Thonchai Winichakul, a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the writer that “the current campaign of reconciliation is a combination of political whitewashing and genuine but careless and thoughtless efforts”. Its shortfall, he said, is that it is “pushed and run by people who are responsible for the crackdown and their supporters with no sign that it would include the process for justice without the involvement of the victims”.
Chatham House, a London-based think tank on international affairs, recently released a briefing paper on Thailand’s political crisis arguing with a similar tone that “without early elections and genuine […] reform, it appears likely that political instability in Thailand will remain”. This looks especially likely as the government-appointed committees do not have the teeth to address the real underlying issues of injustice and political inequalities in Thai society or the power to make the government accept their findings.
The committee appointed to look into the recent violence, headed by Mr. Kanit Na Nakorn, the country’s former attorney general, has yet to release any of its finding. The committee is appointed to look into the root causes of the protest, but is not mandated to address who are the perpetrators involved in the crackdown. This is Thai-style reconciliation. Throughout Thailand’s history of violent crackdown (ranging from the massacres of 1973, 1976 and 1992) there has never been a successful case where government officials were brought to trial.
Worst of all, the so-called reconciliation is being done under an emergency decree which prohibits the gathering of more than five people and sets conditions of media censorship. The government’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has announced that at least 10,000 websites deemed threatening to “national security” have been blocked.
However, Global Voices Advocacy (GVA), an international media freedom group, documents a far higher figure. GVA reports that at least 113,000 websites have already been blocked by the government. The numbers are rising every day.
The recent court decisions on the cases of pro-government and anti-government protesters also provide a clear contrast. The Brahman priest who participated in the red shirt’s blood spilling campaign at Government House and the Prime Minister’s residence in April was sentenced to 8 months imprisonment, while a member of the pro-government yellow shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy who drove a truck over police officers during the PAD’s occupation of Government House in October 2008 (which severely injured five policemen) was given a 2-year suspended jail sentence and 48 hours of public service.
Human rights groups, including the country’s National Human Rights Commission, are also concerned with the arbitrary detention of red shirt leaders and sympathizers. Nitirat Sapsoomboon, a member of the NHRC’s subcommittee on citizen and political rights, has said that around 100 red shirt supporters, specifically in the northeastern part of the country, including elderly people and people suffering from tumors, have been detained since May without the right to a lawyer and the right to bail.
He also highlighted “the case of 16 red shirts who were badly beaten and kept in mobile detention for two days until their blood dried up”.
It looks like the unresolved disputes, grievances, and injustices will continue to be unaddressed by the Abhisit-led government. In the months to come, if there is no genuine change towards a genuine process of inclusive reconciliation, Thailand will be well on the way towards the return of even an more severe political crisis.
Pokpong Lawansiri is a World Bank scholar at the Department of Political Science, University College London.