Weeks after the Thai army ended a bitter nine-week protest by the red shirts in Bangkok, Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is campaigning for reconciliation – a move already burdened with a heavy load of polemic.
With the state of emergency still disrupting the fundamental rights of Thais, the government has commissioned an independent investigation on the rally and its crackdown. The adjective independent has been received with disbelief by wide sectors of the Thai society all too familiar with its elites’ (particularly the army’s) habit of political interference – tendency that had its latest chapter in last December 2008 dissolution of the Thaksin-proxy and then ruling People's Power Party.
Nearly ninety people lost their lives (most of them pro-Thaksin unarmed demonstrators) and almost 1,900 were injured during the unrest. Autopsy reports suggested that most of the deaths were caused by gunshots aimed at critical areas such as the head and heart. Such a finding has sparked an outcry for justice among the population, adding up to the country’s profound (and now blood-stained) political and social polarisation. Neither Abhisit’s administration nor the army have yet accepted any responsibility for the killings, further fuelling the outrage of millions (mainly rural dwellers and the working class) in the largely pro-Thaksin northeast of the country.
A controversial figure
The delicate job of chairing the investigation panel has been given to the former attorney-general, Kanit na Nakorn. Even before getting started, the opposition Puea Thai Party (active advocate of the red-shirts) has voiced strong reservations about the inquiry’s impartiality. To many, Kanit’s links with Abhisit's Democrat Party could be traced back to 1994, when Kanit decided not to pursue cases against heavyweights from the party involved in a land scandal. There is a perhaps well-founded fear that the course of the investigation could be very much restrained by Kanit’s alleged sympathies to the ruling elites. Even in the case that he was determined to conduct a thorough review, he will undoubtedly be subjected to enormous pressures to turn a blind eye on what for many was a conscious disregard for human life.
Pormpong Nopparit, the Puea Thai Party's spokesman, has recently warned that international organisations should get involved if the investigation findings are to be accepted by all sides. Kanit is now set to designate the members of his fact-finding panel – a critical undertaking that should avoid accommodating any individual identified with one or another side of the divide.
Although highly unlikely, Kanit could adopt the approach of inviting members of the Human Rights Commission of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as observers, as Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor of the Thai Nation Media Group, suggested.
In Kanit’s own words, the inquiry “is not aimed at finding who should be held responsible and to punish, but to establish the facts and educate Thai society.” This actually confirms the widespread suspicion that the investigation only embodies an attempt to silence criticisms on the way the rally was dealt with. Furthermore, the Thai judiciary has a long record of favouring the old guard, which hardly makes it a fair judge on the follow up of whatever findings the investigation comes out with.
A damaging emergency law
In the meantime, the emergency rule has been indefinitely prolonged in Bangkok as well as in nearly a third of the country. The army handles security and authorities can detain suspects up to thirty days without charges. Hundreds of activists have already been taken into custody, including several key figures of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the movement behind the red-shirts.
Today, the Thai government faces a formidable two-fold challenge. On the one hand, it needs to appease royalists (personified by the pro-establishment yellow-shirts) by maintaining a firm hand on agitators. On the other, the Abhisit administration is urged to show a genuine commitment to reconciliation, which at some point will entail the relaxation of restrictions.
Despite this juggling exercise, the emergency rule may have already disgraced Abhisit's conciliatory project beyond repair. As stressed by Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International's interim secretary general, the army may be discharged of any human rights violations by resorting to the emergency decree’s conferred immunity. In the eyes of the opposition Puea Thai Party and most UDD leaders, this will delegitimize the conclusions of the Kanit-led investigation. It is a stand that seems likely to be toned down though, following Veera Musikhapong, a co-leader of the UDD, recent endorsement of Kanit’s appointment.
This fact-finding endeavour is framed in a wider reconciliation roadmap. Besides the inquiry, the scheme consists of four further points: excluding the monarchy from any political dispute; narrowing Thailand’s political and economic gap; encouraging a constructive media (the most polemic of them all); and a call to engage all sectors of society in the conciliatory path. "It is time for us to reform Thailand," said Abhisit in a recent TV speech broadcasted to the entire nation.
The elephant in the room
The government’s roadmap fails to address the issue of its own legitimacy. The Abhisit administration got into the business of ruling the country as a result of a deal in parliament, not via the ballot box, a grievance that sent the red-shirts into the streets in the first place. The millions of alienated Thais will not embrace any enterprise aimed at fixing Thailand's dilemmas unless it involves the holding of elections in the near future.
Over the last weeks, Abhisit has tirelessly reiterated that elections will come once reconciliation is achieved, declining to elaborate on his administration’s understanding of the terms of reconciliation. Analysts agree that in any case, elections will not be called until the end of the year. Even if elections are held soon enough, the judiciary would most likely bar key opposition figures from running. If an election does occur under these conditions, the dissatisfaction that has driven millions of Thais to distrust the establishment will only be further embedded in the current spiral of hatred.
From its outset, the government’s reform agenda evidences critical flaws. Thailand is plunged into a bitter disarray that may yet get far worse. As hinted by one UDD organiser (speaking with Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity), if the UDD feels deceived, it may launch an underground struggle.
Regrettably, Abhisit’s latest manoeuvres do not bring much optimism. The country’s dysfunctional socio-political system requires far more than nicely worded commitments if it is to be rebuilt.