Jul 3, 2014

Thailand - Can Thais be reformed and reconciled all at once?

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Reform and reconciliation are often mentioned in the same sentence. That's most likely because a lot of people believe, or hope, that the two things can go hand in hand, or at least one can lead to the other.

These two words form the most convenient response when you are asked what should be done to solve the Thai crisis. "Let's reform the country and bring back peace," the embattled Pheu Thai administration insisted before its collapse. Now, the National Council for Peace and Order is embarking on the same mission.

Add the Democrat Party, the "whistle mobs" and the red shirts and we will see that everyone in Thailand basically wants the same things. But here's the problem: What if reform cannot bring about reconciliation and vice versa? A bolder question is: What if reform and reconciliation stand in each other's way? These are questions that often get sidestepped. They have always been the elephant in our room, whether it's a "democratic" room or one supervised by coup leaders.

Thailand's political complexities aside, the two words' simple meanings can clash. Reform means drastic changes so that perceived flaws can be eliminated. Reconciliation generally requires willingness to accept the flaws or imperfections of "the other side". Do lenient, considerate changes constitute a "reform"? Is it "reconciliation" if one side is required to give more and take less than the other?

General Prayuth Chan-ocha's coup was the easy part. When a husband and wife are on the verge of killing each other, the police intervene. The difficult bit has to do with the question "What's next?" What can the police say to a badly estranged couple who have come to hate each other's guts and are never in doubt as to who is right and who is dead wrong?

And that's just one angry and prejudiced couple. Can a nation divided into two ideological camps with apparently irreconcilable differences be truly reunited? They say democracy was invented to deal with such differences, but what if democracy itself - or how it should be - is the crux of the disagreement? Prayuth's task is gargantuan, not to mention that one side views him as biased.

Before he seized power, Thailand was rocked by the question of whether it should have an election before reform or vice versa. The Pheu Thai government grappled with reform (proposed constitutional amendments) and reconciliation (the amnesty agenda) and both things blew up in its face. Post-coup, Thailand is being condemned by the West despite pledges to improve politics and bring back harmony. As we can see, our big problems have revolved around seemingly wrong timing of "reform" and "reconciliation".

Rightly or wrongly, one side's proclaimed "reform" or "reconciliation" efforts are never trusted by the other camp. The bottom line for Pheu Thai and the red shirts is that "reform" must reflect total renunciation of a coup and unconditional respect for the people's choice. Without that, reform is just a "conspiracy" to deny Thais their democratic mandate.

Meanwhile, the other side's perceived "reform" features absolute intolerance of corruption and decisive and fearless checks and balances.

Can both camps reach a compromise, albeit reconciliation? Let's get back to the husband-and-wife analogy. If he said "Sorry, baby, I was wrong, too" and kissed her, and she did the same, then peace would return to their home. Another scenario has them wait until the police turn their backs so the fight can be resumed. Take your pick of which possibility is more likely.

A most intriguing thing in Thailand's "reconciliation" and "reform" saga occurred after the 2011 election.

It was a time that, ironically, clashing ideologies co-existed reluctantly but effectively. The ballot box was left to rule on who should lead Thailand and the checks and balances kept the powerful brother of the new prime minister out of the country. Corruption was not tolerated and the democratic principle of respecting the people's choice was prevailing. It was awkward. There was constant tension. But both camps' ultimate arguments mattered. "Our vote" mattered. Caution that "our vote" must never be "abused" mattered.

As many things have gone wrong since then, our best hope now rests on whether most people realise that genuine reconciliation is the ultimate type of reform. True reconciliation, after all, requires a drastic change in attitude - and that is the willingness to admit that one's own flaws contribute to the problem. In other words, the only way for reform and reconciliation to co-exist now is for the former to come from within so the latter can materialise. That is the most difficult change of all but also a challenge no Thai can avoid.

Tulsathit Taptim

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Saigon Business Corporation Pte Ltd (SBC) is incorporated in Singapore since 1994. 

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