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Amnesty for all, at what cost?
Publication Date : 11-03-2013
On the surface, "damned if you do; damned if you don't" very much sums up the sentiment in the raging debate over the amnesty bills. But deep down, this is not the Catch-22 situation it may appear to be, with as many as eight different potential bills being pushed forward, causing diversion and confusion. The focus is now on the latest draft, submitted to Parliament last week by 42 Pheu Thai Party MPs headed by Worachai Hema from Samut Prakan.
He called for a blanket amnesty for all political offences, excluding protest leaders, from Sept 15, 2006 to May 10, 2011, potentially affecting over 1,000 offenders. It was an attempt to improve on the previous four drafts awaiting vetting by Parliament as well as those in the offing, including the one recently prepared by former House speaker Ukirt Mongkolnavin.
The opposition Democrat Party has refused to join in the talks, alleging a concerted effort by the ruling party to whitewash its boss-in-exile, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was slapped with a two-year jail term in 2008 over a land purchase scandal in Ratchada. The opposition party is standing firm, saying that amnesty should not be granted to those who have committed crimes.
Again, Thaksin's fate seems to be the key hidden agenda of all proposed bills, and one that will impede further, genuine reconciliation efforts. Supporters of the bills argue that they will heal society and lead to unity so that the country can move forward. For their opponents, the bills are a collective effort to grant amnesty at the expense of justice and truth-finding, and ride roughshod over opportunities for society at large to learn and avoid such mishaps in the future.
Transitional justice is pivotal, they argue, but it must be done in a holistic manner that takes into account all affected stakeholders, civilians or non-civilians, with a step-by-step procedure. Any effort to side-step certain confidence-building, truth-finding processes of confession of wrongdoings and forgiveness would have long-standing negative impacts on the reconciliation process. A survey of the national reconciliation processes of 10 countries around the world, including South Africa, Chile and Rwanda, conducted by the King Prapokkao Institute, showed that inclusiveness and compromise are essentials for successful "closure".
Amnesties are nothing new in Thai politics. At least 18 amnesty bills have been passed since 1932 - when Thailand changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy - as the country has struggled over eight decades to establish a functional democracy. Over the country's long history of military coups and political manipulations, hundreds of political offenders have gotten away without being prosecuted. Amazingly, some of these evil-doers have been allowed to repeat the same offence.
That probably helps to explain why there have been so few lessons learned.
Apparently, the current amnesty bills follow a minimalist approach, trying to wrap up all the so-called "bad occurrences" in one encompassing bill. The Worachai bill is very broad, without specific circumstances except the five-year time frame. All previous amnesty bills were very clear and time sensitive as to the nature of offences and crimes committed.
The bill's real intention is difficult to determine at this particular time. While the Democrat Party zeroes in on Thaksin, other political pundits have different views. They see the drafting of the bill as clearly designed to "fix" the current impasse caused by the ongoing detention of 42 of Thaksin's supporters, which happened during the April/May political crisis. This has been a point of contention among the Pheu Thai Party's members and its militant wings.
The Yingluck government has said time and again that the reconciliation process is high on its agenda. In her supporters' mind, all jailed comrades must be released as quickly as possible. Her loyalty to them can been questioned, which could harm her government's stability in the long run. When she took office in August 2011, she threw her support behind the work of the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand headed by Kanit na Nakorn. But despite the much publicised goodwill, her government has done nothing - taken up not one single recommendation by the commission, which made a thorough investigation and provided a comprehensive and balanced assessment of the April/May 2010 violence when 92 persons were killed and more than 2,000 were injured. Sad but true, the report should have served as a solid foundation from which other truths could be discovered or built upon.
By stubbornly pushing for a blanket amnesty, the government is willing to take a detour past the search for truth that would ensure justice and allow society to learn from past mistakes. Most important is the healing of all political wounds. The government must invite all parties involved in the April/May 2010 incident - the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the red- and yellow-shirt followers, People's Alliance for Democracy, Pheu Thai, the Pitak Siam Group, Nicha Hiranburana Thuwatham (wife of the slain Colonel Romkhlao), representatives of the Truth for Reconciliation Commission - to hear their perspectives and work out solutions step by step that are acceptable to all. Without such a reconciliatory step, the passage of an amnesty bill in whatever form will only further divide the society.
So far, there has not been any effort to set forth a national agenda for reconciliation, except the amnesty for all offenders. Pheu Thai is not interested in getting to the bottom of what went on in 2010 because its top leaders know exactly what happened anyway. It would be political suicide for them to expose this further.
Therefore, all the efforts in the past year have been to create narratives that overlook the due process of law, which is the prerequisite for a proper amnesty. At the moment, the government effort is to get Pheu Thai supporter out of jail and pave the way for Thaksin's return. Even if the government succeeds, Thailand will not be able to break away from this vicious political cycle, because those in power will continue to impose their will on others without going through a proper and genuine reconciliation process.