Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Resentment of reds and the challenge of reconciliation

By ML Nattakorn Devakula

(Bangkok Post) - It is often difficult to comprehend or even sympathise with what looks on the surface to be nothing more than barbaric acts of terrorism. Nonetheless, for a sustainable national reconciliation process to get under way, now is a critical time to understand - especially for those wearing yellow - why the reds acted the way they did.

This is not to justify the setting ablaze of buses and holding people hostage using gas trucks; this article is meant merely to console the hearts of the fighting reds and to get the yellow shirts to find it in their hearts to seek a resolution to the ongoing political conflict.

The Thai Rak Thai party won three consecutive general elections by a landslide. Thaksin Shinawatra, through these indisputable mandates, became champion of the poor - not seen since the days of Field Marshal P Pibulsongkram.

Revelations later, during recent Thaksin phone-ins - true or not is immaterial - convinced his followers that there was tremendous and unnecessary meddling from those close to the palace, some of which was from extremely influential privy councillors.

To Thaksin's loyal supporters, general liberal pro-democracy activists and political ideologues, the accusations of the meddling - even without evidence - only confirmed a deeply-rooted sentiment already suspicious of oligarchic influences, as ever-intervening in the important decisions of their democratically elected governments.

As unsubstantiated as they are, these allegations, emanating from their political spiritual leader, were enough to nurture seeds of doubt previously in place regarding the fairness of such bodies as the privy council, the armed forces and the judiciary, particularly the Constitution Court.

Drawing links between these accusations and the consecutive dissolutions of the highly popular Thai Rak Thai and People Power parties, as well as the still unforgivable Sept 19, 2006 coup and the subsequent shredding of the politician-empowering 1997 Constitution, the anti-aristocracy attitude quickly cemented itself in the mindset of all red shirts. This mindset became the foundation of a hardcore ideological leaning which was the impetus behind the Songkran lash-out and somewhat bloody outcome.

All that has been mentioned would only provide emotional energy for the uprising that we saw during Songkran. Yet, and this is most critical to understanding the resentment of the reds, the tangential point that deepens the red-and-yellow divide came on the April 14 crackdown.

This is not to say that the army-administered dispersal was poorly done because it was not. Proper preventative measures were in place to safeguard the innocent portion of the reds' followers. The deep-rooted resentment came to exist simply because there was any crackdown at all, in contrast to the free rein the armed forces allowed those who wore a different colour a year ago when the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) even more illegally entered Government House and seized Bangkok's two international airports.

As revealed later in a parliamentary session by the then Minister of Interior Pol Gen Kowit Wattana, his officers could not enforce the law in full because he had strong reasons to believe that the PAD mobs were well-connected.

The unshakeable perception, which underlies the argument that there is unfairness from the armed forces possibly due to influences of those close to the conservative establishment, is that preferential treatment has always been given to those wearing the royalists' colour while a less accommodating welcome is handed to those who wear the "communist" colour.

It is not just that there is such an apparent incongruity in the armed forces' treatment of the reds, in comparison to the yellow, both of which having run wild during periods of emergency decree rule.

The allegedly overarching roles of the Constitution Court and the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders have exacerbated the perception that there is indeed a double standard applied to Thaksin-linked and non-Thaksin-linked politicians. There has been no prosecution of a single public office holder of the Democrat party in the last four years. That applies to both the Constitutional Court, the politicians' court, as well as cases under the purview of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

Furthermore, the Constitution Court has dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party, the People Power party, the Chart Thai party, the Matchimathipataya party, while the only real major party left standing - not counting Puea Pandin and Ruamjaithai Pattana which are both disintegrating anyway as we speak - is the Democrat party that is currently in power.

Even if the Court's decisions were arrived at fairly and squarely, on the surface the impression of a double standard is more than enough to compel those who may believe otherwise to join the pro-Thaksin camp.

The road ahead for the conservative establishment is clear as well as unavoidable. In this context, the conservative establishment comprises the Constitution Court, the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders, the NACC, the Office of the Attorney-General, the Privy Council, the conservative media and role-playing academics who frequent television studios to serve the royalist fervour.

Their integral role is to prevent the cementing of the definitive battleline of the future. Their role is to bring down the deepened resentment felt among the reds. Their role is to lessen the severity of the grudge held by pro-Thaksin supporters who still number in the millions.

Their challenging role is to bridge the divide between the conservative yellow and the liberal reds so that a road to peaceful reconciliation can be constructed.

There is, to be honest, very little hope that any of the mentioned tasks can be accomplished. Nearly all articles and commentaries in the Thai media at this moment are overly and overtly considerate of the yellow and the royalists' cause.

Just look at the recent mainstream coverage of the Sondhi Limthongkul shootings. Stories involving the newspaper owner are given more air-time than even the Prime Minister, while groundless accusations immediately flew off the pages against those who dared stand against this political media influential.

Is the threatened life of a yellow-shirt leader valued more by the mainstream media than possibly the hidden dead bodies of those who wore red?

Conservatives are ubiquitous; they are trusted by newspaper reporters and respected by television producers. The radio airwaves featuring anti-establishment causes have either been brought down or screened out.

The author personally does not see a route of the type to facilitate a reconciliation as mentioned. In all honesty, what is most likely to happen is a continued stomping down of the liberal voice, the censoring of the anti-Democrat voice, and an ostracising process of any persons or entities potentially linked to the imagined republican cause.

For the sake of the conservative establishment's own survival, the author here truly hopes that he is wrong.

Former Bangkok Post columnist, ML Nattakorn Devakula is a news analyst.

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