Thailand’s tale of reconciliation that is always doomed to fail

“Reconciliation and harmony” is the way out offered every time deep political divisions have pushed Thailand to the brink of disaster in the past decade.    

But repeated efforts have failed to heal the bitter divide, which is now widening by the day as authorities clamp down on anti-government protesters.

The latest bid to defuse escalating political tension – a national reconciliation panel set up by Parliament President Chuan Leekpai – looks doomed already as stakeholders threaten to boycott the process or set mutually incompatible conditions.

The new initiative came after a special Parliament session last week failed to agree on measures to address student-led protests ongoing for nearly four months. The protesters are pushing for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s resignation, a more democratic charter and reform of the monarchy.

Thai PBS World looks back at moves made over the past decade to restore national harmony – and why not one achieved its aim.

 

2010: Independent truth-seeking panel

The first round of national reconciliation efforts began under Abhisit Vejjajiva’s 2008- 2011 administration.

Following the bloody May 2010 crackdown on anti-government red-shirt supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, then-PM Abhisit launched a national reconciliation plan to address the social and economic disparities at the root of Thailand’s deep divide.

Abhisit appointed the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) as an independent body to investigate and determine the root cause of the 2010 political showdown. Led by former attorney-general Professor Kanit Nanakorn, TRCT’s job was to come up with recommendations to prevent future conflicts.

TRCT was seen by many as a tool to whitewash the powers-that-be, but its final report said that both sides – protesters and government security forces, including the military – bore responsibility for the violent escalation.

The report also claimed that the mysterious “men in black” – alleged paramilitary allies of the red shirts – played a crucial rule in the April 10, 2010 bloodbath at Bangkok’s Kok Wua intersection. It concluded that their involvement in this and other incidents led to the May 19 crackdown by authorities, during which the death toll rose above 90 and red-shirt leaders had no option but to surrender.

When the panel released its final report in 2012, it found little favour with the newly elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister.

 

2011: Yingluck govt’s follow-up panel

Three months after coming to power in 2011, Yingluck appointed a committee chaired by deputy PM Yongyuth Wichaidit to look into the TRCT’s recommendations.

Only a few were implemented by her administration.

The Cabinet did, though, earmark Bt2 billion to compensate victims of political conflicts from 2005 to 2010. Up to Bt7.75 million was paid for each death.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission later decided to investigate the handout, and in 2015 its sub-committee charged Yingluck and 33 members of her former Cabinet with approving the compensation without legal endorsement.

 

2011: House’s reconciliation study committee

Alongside the Yingluck government’s panel, the House of Representatives – where her Pheu Thai Party held a majority – decided to set up an ad hoc committee to study guidelines for promoting national harmony. The panel was chaired by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who had staged the coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006.

Its report was widely slammed for recommending an amnesty be granted not just for all protest-related cases, but also to those investigated by the Assets Examination Committee set up after the 2006 coup.

Such an amnesty would have benefited Thaksin, who faced several corruption charges stemming from his time in power.

The amnesty proposal was later included in a national unity draft bill proposed by Sonthi’s panel to the House in 2012 along with three similar versions tabled by Pheu Thai MPs. All four bills focused on amnesty, but were different in detail.

However, the drafts were swiftly shelved after facing fierce opposition from the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy movement, which said they were aimed at exonerating Thaksin.

 

2013: Controversial blanket amnesty bill

A year later, at 4am on November 1, 2013, Yingluck’s government passed a bill granting blanket amnesty to everybody involved in previous political conflicts – including politicians charged with corruption and individuals accused of serious crimes like arson and murder.

Critics said the aim was to benefit Thaksin, who fled the country in 2008 shortly before being sentenced to two years for abuse of power.

In 2017, his sister was sentenced in absentia to five years for negligence in relation to her government’s graft-plagued rice-subsidy scheme.

The 2013 amnesty bill’s passage by the House of Representatives caused widespread public anger, prompting the Senate to vote it down. But this failed to stop angry crowds from taking to the streets to protest against the Yingluck government.

The protests, led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, lasted for six months and resulted in the May 2014 coup – whose leaders once again promised national reform and reconciliation.

 

2017: Junta unity efforts 

Three years after staging a coup, junta chief and PM Prayut appointed and also chaired four committees – on reform, reconciliation, national strategy, and administration strategy. The focus was on the reconciliation-preparation committee overseen by Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan and comprising ministers, military top-brass and senior state officials.

Seen as a military panel, it invited political parties, political and civic groups, and business leaders to propose ideas to achieve national harmony. It compiled all the opinions into a 10-point “social contract” for reconciliation. The document eschewed specifics in favour of vague directives, such as: “Differences of opinions should be accepted and political institutions strengthened so they lead to transparent, clean and fair elections.”

The pact was meant to serve as a unifying agreement which would be signed by different parties and groups to promote social harmony. However, it was quickly scrapped after politicians insisted the military sign it as one of the conflicting sides.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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