Obstacles Facing Thai Reconciliation – The Irrawaddy


BANGKOK – The brutality seen on the streets of Bangkok in recent days is unlikely to be forgotten quickly, irrespective of the ‘mai pen rai’ thinking that many panglossian observers attribute to Thai culture.

Thai society is divided, and animosity now runs deep. Redshirts and the pro-Government supporters have plenty of accusations they can level at each other. Some are justifiable, but then both sides have peddled plenty of half-truths about themselves and the other.

Destruction behind the Buddhist harmony (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The redshirts can depict the Government and Army as assassins who fired on unarmed protestors. They can say that the Army supports an unelected Government, which it previously helped slip into power. The Government and yellowshirts can describe the redshirts as violent protestors, as they sheltered or tolerated a violent black-clad militia. And they can point out that these men laid waste to dozens of buildings when they failed to get their way.

Mutual recriminations will bolster the divides and give support to hardliners on both sides, as well as radicalise ordinary folk who may have previously been closer to the middle ground.

The Army and Government will be seen as hand-in-hand, doing the bidding of the Thai elites who see the redshirts as a threat to the old way of running Thailand. Redshirts will be seen as violent Jacobins who want to overthrow the old order and are willing to put women and children in the firing line to do so.

But there is hope. The reality that the Thai economy is open and integrated into the rest of the region means that any lurch to political instability will focus minds, as tourism revenue and investment falters. Redshirts claim they want a more equal society, and are generally less well-off than their Yellowshirt rivals, Thaksin’s ostentatious wealth notwithstanding. Thailand remains one of the world’s most unequal societies, with wealth and connections

More destruction within the redshirt rally area. (Photo: Simon Roughneen

commandeered by the yellowshirt-linked ancien regime. Thaksin’s self-made-man brashness was a niggly counter-point to this, and he harnessed the demographic strength of the less well-off majority in the north and north-east to win successive elections.

Surveys show that Thais believe a fair judicial system, open press and electoral democracy are the best tools for resolving social conflict. With this in mind, double-standards need to be addressed. If the army can crack down on a red shirt protest then surely the Government needs to ensure that the yellow-shirt leaders who sparked the airport occupations in late 2008 – while in opposition – at least see their day in court. Otherwise the redshirts and ordinary Thais will lose trust in their political and judicial systems.

On the redshirt side, Thaksin Shinawatra has been convicted of corruption and has seen US$1.4billion of his assets

seized by the Thai courts. While the redshirt movement has taken on a momentum of its own in recent months, and

Redshirts get ready to leave for home on buses provided by the Thai Gov. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

some of the arrested leaders have come to the fore, for good and bad, he remains its single iconic figure and likely main source of funds. Painful as it may be for redshirts, Thaksin should come back to Thailand and face up to the charges and serve his two-year jail term. Otherwise yellowshirts and the current Government will cling to their belief that the redshirts are mere pawns in Thaksin’s fight to get an amnesty, get his money back and get back to Thailand to run for office once more. Talk of the town in Bangkok now is the burning of many business houses by the redshirt militants, after their leaders handed themselves in. Many of these premises are owned or run by Thaksin enemies or opponents. This revenge-action is seen as foretaste of what might happen if Thaksin ever returns to Thailand and to political power.

An election campaign could be divisive and dangerous in the current climate, but given that the redshirts can legitimately claim that current PM Abhisit came to power by less-than-transparent means, a free and fair election would sharpen many of the blurred and contentious lines currently animating Thai politics. Abhisit’s reluctance to commit to an election date now likely stems from the acknowledgement that his party would not win, and that a redshirt victory – via Peua Thai – is more likely. However Abhisit is rhetorically-confident that the redshirts have damaged their cause by occupying and destroying parts of central Bangkok. Peua Thai has not overtly condemned the red rage. So why not put this to the test in the polls, and see how much support the redshirts have after Rajaprasong?

The PM has other worries to contend with. His Democrat Party faces disbandment, as it faces charges of campaign finance abuses. And even if the Democrat Party escapes these charges, it could lose votes to the yellowshirt-linked New Politics Party, which takes an even-harder line on Thaksin and the redshirts.

The prospect of a violent and divisive election might be reason enough for Abhisit to hold off on announcing any polling date. He can also point out that his original November 14 proposal was rejected by the redshirts.

But even an election itself might not be enough, if there is not a clear commitment to honouring the result in advance, which should then be lived up to – by the losers, by the Army, by redshirts and by yellowshirts. Restrictions on the media need to be lifted, as many Thais do not trust the messages from their own media, which is either partisan, or circumscribed by Government oversight. Abhisit’s reconciliation plan seemingly will ramp up this oversight, rather than relax it. Media restrictions along these lines will by themselves mean that an election campaign will not be free and fair.

It is no doubt a lot to ask, and seems unlikely to pan out, but some or all of the above would pour a lot of cold water on what is already a boiling-point political and social divide in Thailand.

Redshirts left the Rajaprasong rally site in a hurry, leaving many possessions behind. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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