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Can Thailand Avoid the Abyss?

Apr 24, 2009

A red shirt protester gestures to members of the Thai military during violent protests on April 13, 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

A red shirt protester gestures to members of the Thai military during violent protests on April 13, 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

by Kantathi Suphamongkhon

Originally published in the Bangkok Post, April 24, 2009

The hate campaign in Thailand, which started in 2005 and intensified in 2008, has been successful and has polarised Thai society to an unprecedented degree. It is time to reset Thailand's domestic politics before it is too late.

It was frightening then to notice that the themes and the words used were similar to the ones used in Rwanda, which led to genocide in that country 15 years ago.

The success of the hate campaign owed much to the round-the-clock live television, broadcasting and reaffirming hate messages.

This was supplemented by demonstrations and rallies, including the occupation of Government House and the closure of international airports by demonstrators wearing yellow shirts, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), determined to bring down an elected government.

The PAD has called for a parliament to be dominated by appointed, rather than elected, members.

These events sent a strong message that illegal acts, detrimental to Thailand's national interest and with the aim of bringing down elected governments, are acceptable in Thailand.

The military did not react to enforce the law against the "yellow shirts."

Earlier this month, following the examples set by the yellow shirts, an opposing group of people, members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), wearing red shirts, took to the streets to demand a return of full democracy to Thailand.

A regional summit was abruptly cancelled as a result, and this time, the military reacted swiftly to enforce the law against the "red shirts."

Opposing groups in Thailand now see the situation as a "zero sum game," in which if one side wins, the other side loses. With this attitude, there is no possibility of a settlement with mutual gains.

As events developed following the coup, many Thais became convinced that there is a double standard in Thailand in which members of one side can break the law with impunity while members of the other side are subjected to maximum punishment.

Both sides used strong personal attacks on key personalities, resorting to emotional accusations. In this way, action leads to reaction, escalating into violence.

The situation is grim, and there is real potential for things to get worse, leading Thais into the abyss together.

How can we put an end to this escalation of conflict?

The only way out that I can see is to borrow the words of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as she met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On that occasion, mindful of deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States, she proposed pressing the "reset button." I now say, it is time to press the reset button for Thailand.

A fresh start for Thailand is needed urgently. This means nothing less than the immediate change in assumptions and attitudes for all sides, followed immediately by constructive action.

But how?

  1. Thais must stop using their time, energy and brain power to attack and destroy one another. Instead, these resources should be used by Thais to jointly find solutions agreeable to all sides through constructive negotiation and dialogue. This means all sides must stop seeing the situation as a zero-sum game. Attitudes must change to enable all sides to see that a "positive sum game" or a "win-win" situation is possible, one in which all sides, by working together, can gain together and save the kingdom.
  2. Thais must separate the people from the problem—and stop trying to find creative ways to destroy one another. We must resist the temptation to act against someone on the basis of assumptions based on rumours or unverified accusations. Personal attacks only lead to counter-personal attacks and the hardening of opposite positions. This must end.
  3. Instead of declaring positions and thinking that we cannot back down from the declared positions without losing face, let us focus on our underlying interests and work together to find common ground. We are all Thais. We have lived happily together for over 800 years. There is no reason why we cannot work together now.
  4. All Thais must have good reasons to be convinced that there is no double standard in Thailand. Due process of law must apply to all Thais, regardless of which side the person may be perceived to be from. All Thais, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are from Bangkok or from the rural areas, must be made to feel that they are all Thai citizens, with equal rights under the same law. This includes voting rights.
  5. We should avoid the retroactive application of laws that take away people's rights, such as the one by which if one executive of a political party is found guilty of violating election law, the entire political party can be disbanded and all party executives lose their right to vote in local and national elections - and are prohibited from holding political positions for five years. In addition, the principle of proportionality should be applied when punishments are handed down by the courts.
  6. We must stop debating whether or not there is a double standard in Thailand from the 2006 coup d'etat until now. Debates on this point are counter-productive, since they can only help entrench the polarised positions of each side. Except for very serious crimes of which the evidence is clear, the fact that a significant part of Thai society feels that there is a double standard is enough to trigger amnesty across the political board.
  7. Controversial provisions of the 2007 constitution must be revised to be more consistent with democracy.
  8. The results of our next elections must be respected. All political parties have ample time to design effective strategies to win elections. Resorting to illegal means to reverse election results must not be condoned.

I want to see the day when all Thais can walk proudly together, wearing whatever colour shirts we like, uniting together in a just society and working together to enable the kingdom to succeed with flying colours under globalisation.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has often emphasised that he is determined to bring about reconciliation by the promotion of justice, democracy and political reform, including the amendment of the constitution.

He said that he would invite all parties concerned to discuss ways for the country to move forward. The formation of a truly impartial and independent body, acceptable to all parties concerned, to help with the reconciliation process would be helpful. It is now time to "reset" Thailand by translating those noble words into concrete actions.


Kantathi Suphamongkhon, a member of Asia Society's International Council, served as foreign minister of Thailand during the administration of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from March 11, 2005 until the military coup d'etat on Sept 19, 2006. He is currently senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he also teaches law and diplomacy.


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