Thailand: Reconciliation impossible without political freedom
Thailand: Reconciliation impossible without political freedom
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Thailand: Reconciliation impossible without political freedom

Thailand is a country caught in its own contradictions. The government has one hand clenched in a repressive fist to enforce the emergency law imposed on 24 provinces, while it offers its other hand out in a gesture promising national reconciliation to all.

While in public the administration's policy is to build bridges to span the divide that its recent crackdown has only deepened, those who would be needed to be convinced to join this grand national project to make it a success are simultaneously being harassed and detained and spuriously labelled "terrorists".

The country cannot have peace without compromise, fundamental political freedoms, and democracy. Rather than more harsh actions or empty words of reconciliation, the government needs to quickly take concrete steps and make concessions that will prove that its road map would be all-inclusive, participatory and not an imposition.

First, the emergency law in 24 provinces should be lifted. The small threat does not justify the continued use of such a blunt instrument that grants sweeping powers to the authorities. When it comes up for renewal tomorrow, this law should be revoked without conditions. Although there has been some minor violence, it is nowhere near the scale that could warrant such a brutal assault on Thailand's democratic freedoms. This draconian measure has been used to suppress demonstrations of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), shut down its media, detain its supporters without charge, and ban financial transactions of its alleged financiers. Reconciliation will remain a political gimmick as long as the UDD or red shirts are suppressed, detained and on the run.

Second, the red shirts should be given back their political rights. The government must allow demonstrations and re-open banned media. The emergency law permitted sweeping censorship without explaining why certain publications, radio programmes and websites constituted a threat to the country. When the red shirts are robbed of venues where their voices can be heard, the resulting frustration could potentially push them towards illegal acts and violence. Lasting national reconciliation will require vigorous open debate which cannot happen in this environment. For their part, the UDD leaders should speak with one voice to reject and condemn armed activities - even if some claim they are for the purpose of protecting supporters - and strictly adhere to non-violent principles.

Third, the demonisation of the opposition should end. The government has gone too far by making accusations and charges of "terrorism" against the red shirt leaders, including Thaksin Shinawatra, even more so since this offence is punishable by death. The links between the red shirts and shadowy armed assailants, dubbed "men in black," remain unclear. Violent acts such as arson and assault committed by a small minority of red shirts during the two-month rallies were criminal behaviour, but it is hard to argue that the aim of the movement and its leaders was to kill civilians. Besides, despite government claims that its definition of terrorism is in line with the UN, there is no international agreement on this term. Thailand's allies find objectionable the use of this term for political purposes and the government knows this as they have somewhat refrained from using it abroad. This short-sighted tactic is unlikely to lead to Thaksin's extradition and will hamper reconciliation.

Fourth, the government should work diligently to establish the facts of violent incidents in April and May so that the perpetrators of criminal acts on all sides are held accountable. This will be essential to healing the wounds as justice is an integral part of reconciliation. While few question the integrity of former attorney-general Kanit na Nakorn who heads the Independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel's credibility is undermined by the government that appointed it. The failure of previous fact-finding commissions into violent events, including ones headed by Mr Kanit, to bring security forces responsible for violence to justice casts doubt on the panel's effectiveness. However, it should be given a chance to prove it is not a whitewash. Having a body of foreign advisers to provide expertise in truth and reconciliation might increase its credibility.

Finally, to start a new chapter and build new political consensus, the conditions for peaceful elections should be created as soon as possible. This will require agreement among all parties about what parts of the constitution and other laws will need to be changed to make this effort as inclusive as possible. Guided by a spirit of cooperation, they could all commit to a pact to avoid violence and confrontation. As part of it, all sides should agree to accept the result of a fair election, which would benefit from international monitoring.

Elections would be the beginning rather than the end of the process. A new government with a genuine popular mandate could thus move the country forward according to an agreed agenda. In the long run, Thailand needs to ponder much broader political reforms, including the role of the military in democracy. Wealth needs to be shared, justice delivered equitably and power decentralised. But for now, those in power need to abandon the prevailing authoritarian thinking. They must show that their political compass is guided by democratic values that can bridge the deep divide and lead the country away from future deadly conflict.

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