Reconciliation was central to Pheu Thai’s (PT) 2011 election platform, a sentiment that continued to resonate with voters despite five years of confrontation following the 2006 military coup that had ousted and exiled the prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Since receiving her overwhelming mandate in the 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, has stuck to the specifics of the campaign promise. Reconciliation has remained a priority despite hurdles, yet finding the right path leading to the new era remains a challenge.
SPEAKING SOFTLY: Addressing the grievances on both sides of the pro- and anti-Thaksin divide is neither straightforward nor assured. Anti-Thaksin sentiment still runs deep among supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and members of the establishment, colouring their views of PT’s populist base and policies. Despite PT’s popular mandate, the government has recognised the need to tread lightly. Future military intervention remains unlikely given the international and domestic condemnation it would no doubt provoke.
The military cites Thaksin’s abuses of power while in office, notably corruption and electoral irregularities, as the justification for the coup and the dissolution of both Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and its successor, the People’s Power Party (PPP).
These verdicts, handed down by the Constitutional Court in 2007 and 2008, respectively, alongside the decision to terminate the premiership of PPP leader, Samak Sundaravej in September 2008, are still condemned by pro-Thaksin groups as politically motivated miscarriages of justice.
These rulings and the Constitutional Court’s rejection of a case to dissolve the Democrats in 2011 for alleged electoral fraud and vote-buying, perpetuate claims of judicial impartiality, a hotly contested issue fuelling allegations of double-standards.
AMNESTY OR JUSTICE: PT’s solution has been to propose a blanket amnesty. However, to many opponents, upholding the court’s rulings is crucial to ensuring that justice is served. They have resisted all moves to expunge TRT and PPP leaders, fearing that this would pave the way for Thaksin’s return to Thailand and politics. PT’s proposal also faces opposition among its own supporters. Many want to see the PAD leadership held accountable for its six-month occupation of Government House, attacks on red-shirt supporters and the closure of national airports in 2008. The PAD’s ability to operate with impunity was in stark contrast to the aggressive measures the military took against red-shirt supporters for similar felonies. Of the military’s actions, the most divisive remain its partisan refusal to intervene when the PPP government declared a state of emergency in 2008, and the military crackdowns of April and May 2010 that saw 92 deaths (86 civilian), over 2000 wounded and the burning of several buildings.
Previous negotiation attempts by the Democrats in the weeks before the confrontations had failed due to disunity and lack of compromise among the leadership of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a pro-Thaksin umbrella group, precipitating a military crackdown. However, the labelling of the protests as “terrorism” and mishandled investigations by the internal security agency, the Department of Special Investigations (DSI), into the deaths, remains disputed and contentious. Since PT came to power, the DSI has reverted to many of its original findings that found the military responsible in some deaths, although they have yet to rule conclusively on all cases.
CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE: While the amnesty proposal is debated, PT has proposed the formation of a 99-member Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) through Article 291 of the 2007 constitution. The move to repeal certain sections of the current constitution and revert to some principles of the 1997 framework has caused the military establishment to fear that this will strip immunity from coup leaders and lead to the annulment of Constitutional Court rulings. At the time writing, the proposed changes are under discussion in the wider political and judicial arenas. The court ruled that individual amendments may be applied, but not a wholesale constitutional re-write. Furthermore, any changes must be approved via national referendum.
This verdict neither fully endorses nor rejects modifications, but it does throw the process into a volatile political ring. The court’s decision also undermines the function of the CDA, which would give the government greater control over reforms, ruling that the CDA’s legitimacy rests in the approval which was expressed through the referendum.
Such moves are not purely partisan; rather they respond to bipartisan calls to review sections of the constitution. The 1997 constitution’s broad consultative approach was seen as genuinely participatory in contrast to the 2007 draft, which was engineered with the deliberate exclusion of some stakeholders. Irrespective of the 2007 constitution’s merits, much of the ongoing discourse stems from its genesis, which is cast in the shadow of the political circumstances at the time of its creation.
THE REAL QUESTION: Such issues are at the heart of the reconciliation debate. Tacitly, the pursuit of reconciliation, first fielded by the Democrats in 2010, has become a question of where the moral authority to lead and govern resides today. The social divisions and foundations of this debate, long latent in Thai society, were exacerbated by the 2006 coup d’é- tat, when many who had previously fought against military intervention condoned the coup. The belief that the military acted in the interests of the nation’s greater good deeply pervaded public opinion, civil society speakers and parts of the bureaucracy.
This division of ideologies continues today. While the contemporary conflict and debate are seen by many as just another chapter in Thailand’s evolution toward democracy, last year’s election was Thailand’s Rubicon moment. The 1991 coup, 1992 upheaval and 1997 constitution were chapters in the nation’s struggle against military influence and for democratic reform. Yet the 2011 election has made the country’s demand for a new social contract inclusive of justice and equality impossible to bury.
This is a positive development for Thailand, with the debate squarely in the public forum. Yet barriers remain, and reconciliation on this scale is unprecedented in Thailand. The grievances of previous coups and conflicts were allowed to drift into obscurity, although this does not seem to have had a noticeably harmful affect on national development. Today’s pervasive connectivity means that this is no longer possible, says Ramkhamhaeng University’s associate professor of political science, Chaichana Inkawat. “Social media will be [the foundation of] new politics in Thai society. It may not be like the Arab Spring, but it will remain a huge influence,” Chaichana said.
ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY: To reconcile, each side must be willing to recognise the legitimate grievances of other parties. However, PT’s BT2bn ($63.8m) compensation fund for victims of both the political violence and the insurgency in the south, announced in 2011, may be the closest the government is able to venture in acknowledging the responsibility of the state for the events.
It is for this reason that previous initiatives have been unsuccessful. The Thailand Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TTRC), created in 2010 and reconstituted by the PT government, is headed by Anand Panyarachun. Despite being one of Thailand’s most popular and conciliatory prime ministers, appointed in the aftermath of the 1991 coup, the dialogue he created brought little traction to the TTRC. In parliament, former 2006 coup leader and now Matubhum Party head, general Sonthi Boonyaratglin is the chairman of the House Committee on National Reconciliation, but has refused to discuss many details of the coup.
Central to the debate is the exile of Thaksin and if he will return. He recognises the upheaval that his permanent return would cause. While public provocations suggest an imminent return, practical and political realities preclude this possibility. Opponents are steeling themselves for this scenario, and are prepared to pursue legal action.
Although substantive constitutional reform and reconciliation are still a ways off, the process of ongoing consultation has provided an alternative to confrontation and conflict, facilitating broader national dialogue. “The political system should reflect the changes in Thai society and give greater space for all to participate in politics,” said Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking with OBG. Yet both the government and the people are faced with a choice, said professor Gothom Arya of the Human Rights and Peace Council at Mahidol University: “They must absorb and accommodate the new model of government, or remain an asynchronous society.”