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Reconciliation slow train's next stop: nowhere
Publication Date : 08-08-2013
Thai Premier Yingluck Shinawatra says she isn't asking the Thai people to forget the past, but to learn from the past so that the country can start counting from one all over again.
Yes, it's back to Square One, the prime minister said in an unexpected televised speech last week, immediately after her return from a visit to three African countries. She surprised many observers. Suddenly, the "non-political prime minister" has plunged right into the middle of the political maelstrom.
In her dramatic statement, Yingluck declared that the government would this week host a forum, for all parties, on the prolonged political conflict, to draw up a new roadmap for national reconciliation, so that peace and harmony can be achieved for the next generation of Thais.
"This reconciliation train will stop at every station," explained Noppadon Pattana, a legal adviser to ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. He seemed able to provide details that the prime minister herself had not covered in the speech. She has yet to answer tricky questions on how the new roadmap is going to be worked out.
The timing is, of course, uppermost in the minds of cynics. The premier's public appeal was apparently delivered in a hurry. Observers say even Pheu Thai Party members were surprised at the declaration. The premier taped the statement almost immediately after she disembarked from the plane - just two days before the scheduled anti-government rally last Sunday.
It also coincided with this week's scheduled debate in the House of Representatives on the controversial amnesty bill submitted by a Pheu Thai MP. The proposed legislation has drawn vehement protests from the main opposition Democrat Party as well as other anti-government groups that suspect the bill's hidden agenda is to eventually help Thaksin to be granted clemency.
Reactions to the PM's proposal have gone along predictable lines. Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva shot it down almost immediately, arguing that it's nothing but an "image-building" gimmick. Coalition partner Banharn Silpa-archa, chief adviser to the Chat Thai Pattana Party, meanwhile received with open arms two senior Cabinet members dispatched by the premier to his home. Banharn, no doubt, is more than willing to be first to publicly jump on the bandwagon.
Academics and business leaders, as well as politicians, are split right down the middle. This is only to be expected, and suggests that the premier's tone and substance hasn't changed anybody's prior opinion.
PM's Office Minister Varathep Rattanakorn, one of the two Cabinet members assigned by the PM to coordinate the "reconciliation" process, suggested that invitations would also go out to former prime ministers including Thaksin and Anand Panyarachun. It didn't take long for political pundits to paint the scenario of Thaksin discussing national reconciliation with former premier General Prem Tinsulanonda. The two are known to be on opposite sides in the ongoing political conflict.
That raises the crucial question of how Thaksin could take part in talks. "Of course, when we say former PMs, Khun Thaksin is also included. But there is the constraint on how he can join the discussion. We will have to look at that point again. The forum is expected to kick off after August 12," Varathep told reporters.
The Thaksin factor will again serve as the main obstacle to the process, and doubters have been quick to point out that, once this issue is raised, the very concept of a reconciliation forum will be stillborn.
Of course, the government will also invite well-known critics such as Dr Prawes Wasi, as well as the group of 40 senators who have already turned down the offer. If it turns out, as speculated, that Banharn is made chairman of the reconciliation working committee, the credibility of the new move will be dealt a severe blow. It will be seen as a government-controlled exercise and this new reconciliation move will die a quick death.
Former House speaker Uthai Pimchaichon has been quoted as saying he will join the process if the ruling party withdraws the amnesty bill - a proposal unlikely to be accepted. Former Parliament speaker Ukrit Mongkolnawin has reacted positively, as expected, with a caveat: he wants the premier to name a council of elders, with former premier Prem acting as adviser. Yingluck describes it as a "good idea", but it's unlikely that such a council will be formed anytime soon.
And if the PM reverts to Dr Kanit Na Nakorn, chairman of the now-defunct Truth for Reconciliation Commission, to head the new forum, she might be asked why the commission's earlier comprehensive recommendations had fallen on deaf ears.
All in all, this is not very promising. More like a slow train trip to nowhere.