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New storm brews on Thailand's political horizon
Publication Date : 31-07-2013
One wrong move by the Thai government and it all can go to hell. That's the summary we can deduce from political analysis in a Thai-language newspaper. The good news is the analysis is in a column known for its sensational lines. The bad news is, it's a newspaper sympathetic to the Yingluck administration.
August, hopefully, will "ease" Thais into a new round of political tension. Or it will mercilessly throw us into new turmoil without any countdown. Whatever lies in store, we had better brace ourselves for a crash-landing, and the best we can hope for is that the impact is not fatal.
All this is because some people want "reconciliation". If that sounds ironic, let's hear it in full: What should we do if violence breaks out because of a bill or bills seeking to forgive and forget past violence and those who were involved, possibly including its perpetrators? Should new wrongdoers also be pardoned in the future because, after all, they fit the principles of the amnesty and reconciliation bills? Their violence will be political and totally related to the Thai crisis.
It's getting confusing even for ardent followers of Thai politics. Why are the Democrats publicly backing a bill, drafted by relatives of "victims" of the Rajadamnoen "massacre", that would omit Abhisit Vejjijiva and Suthep Thaugsuban from amnesty? Why are some of the red-shirts opposed to the relatives' bill and find a Pheu Thai MP's bill more favourable? What are the key differences between the two bills? Where do the yellow shirts stand?
To answer those questions, the Democrats are "showing their spirit" and the red shirts want a wholesale amnesty because the relatives' bill would leave it open for arsonists who targeted private properties to be punished.
The yellow shirts will oppose any amnesty bill, apparently because although Thaksin Shinawatra is unlikely to benefit, an amnesty bill in parliament could open the door for a larger scheme of political pardoning already incorporated in one or two so-called "reconciliation" bills. The anti-amnesty movement - which seems to be a loose alliance among the yellow shirts, "white masks", multi-colours and the Spring News team - points to a recently leaked audio clip featuring Thaksin's voice to back its claim that a government-backed pardoning programme cannot be trusted.
People can kill for power or money. This amnesty saga features both elements, and a lot of Thais seem to realise that. More than 90 per cent of Thais want political peace, a recent opinion poll predictably showed. That the opposite of what they want is looming large is not a surprise, though. The pollsters did their surveys in shopping malls, university campuses and markets. Sadly, that "majority" can't have a say on what bills should be considered by Parliament in August, or what true "reconciliation" should look like.
Thailand gets all mixed up over the term "democratic mandate". Is it justifiable for the ruling party to push for a potentially explosive amnesty scheme, even if it could lead to violence? Some people will say "Why not?" citing the basic principle that election winners are supposed to keep their promises. But democracy is also about political responsibility. Democracy allows a policy U-turn when damage might overshadow benefits.
Let's see what kind of damage is possible if the government insists on effecting an "amnesty" scheme. The ultimate loser could be our already fragile democracy, the very thing that amnesty advocates claim the scheme will help reinvigorate. Make no mistake, a fair and just amnesty programme can help Thai democracy, but nothing tabled so far has been accepted by both sides of the political divide.
Without amnesty, is Thailand's a half-baked democracy? Again, there are two sides to the same coin. It's half-baked if an honest, popular ex-ruler remains a victim of injustice. It's anything but if a sister of a dishonest albeit popular ex-ruler can serve as prime minister, backed by solid grassroots support. The thing is, even if it's really half-baked, why risk throwing it all away? Amnesty can wait and it should wait.
We need to start somewhere, amnesty advocates insist. They overlook the possibility that an uncomfortable compromise may already exist. Democracy has done its job by installing the sister of a convict as prime minister, whereas the rule of law has been guarding against controversial use of a democratic mandate to whitewash him. This marriage of inconvenience may be the best we can get, and the consequences may be direr if the uneasy balance is tilted.
Timing is crucial. And "timing" here is not about choosing the best moment to catch enemies off-guard. That is by no means a way to reconcile a strife-torn country. The only good time for reconciliation is when each party stops finger pointing and starts admitting that it, too, is responsible for the crisis. That is not happening, and it's the main reason why one wrong move could be disastrous.