CHIANGRAI TIMES– For a piece of legislation designed to promote harmony, Thailand’s reconciliation bill has stirred up plenty of strife. Last week the opposition Democrat Party resorted to brawls on the floor of parliament to block the law. On Friday, royalist “yellow shirts,” allies of the Democrats, prevented MPs from entering the building, which led the speaker to adjourn the debate indefinitely. Meanwhile, the pro-government “red shirts” have also returned to the streets of Bangkok for what one leader called a “decisive battle.”
Radicals on both sides are unhappy that the law would grant amnesty for a broad range of political crimes from 2005-11, including the 2006 coup and its aftermath as well as the 2010 red shirt protests that were violently suppressed by the army. It would undo all the orders of the coup government, including the Assets Scrutiny Committee that investigated ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. With his corruption conviction and two-year prison sentence thus voided, Mr. Thaksin would be free to return home and claim $1.5 billion in confiscated assets.
The fight over Mr. Thaksin’s return has been building since his sister Yingluck Shinawatra won election as prime minister almost a year ago. As political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote on these pages last month, she struck a tacit deal with the military and the palace that allows her to rule as long as she doesn’t challenge the military’s prerogatives and shows no leniency in the prosecution of lese majeste offenses. The reconciliation bill appears to be an extension of that deal between the elites on both sides.
This conclusion is reinforced by the symbolism of having Gen. Sonthi Boonrataglin, the army chief who led the 2006 coup, introduce the initial bill.
The prime minister warns that Thailand faces a renewed “cycle of violence” if reconciliation is not achieved. And wiping the slate clean will suit politicians on both sides very well. Many of Mr. Thaksin’s partisans have been banned from politics for five-year periods, while Democrat politicians and army generals face potential liability for the death of more than 90 people during the May 2010 crackdown.
However, true reconciliation is not something that can be legislated. It depends on the truth being established, but that is not something that Thailand’s political establishment can accept.
The Truth for Reconciliation Committee has limited power and has made little headway in investigating the crimes of past governments. Two years after army snipers were shooting protesters in the streets, the Department of Special Investigation has found that state authorities were responsible for the deaths of at least 25 people, while conservative estimates put the true figure at three times that. At least the government is now paying the families of all the dead $245,000 per victim, although in return they are required to give up all lawsuits against officials.
The lack of accountability enrages the red shirts, and many now feel betrayed by a deal that trades away their demand for justice for the return of Mr. Thaksin. His televised address to supporters on the second anniversary of the army’s crackdown struck many as patronizing and self-centered. “We must save personal issues for later. We must think first of the whole,” he explained. “If there’s reconciliation, then there’s a chance for me to come back and do good things for my brothers and sisters.”
But ultimately the red shirts may have no choice but to be patient. Once safely in Thailand and with his most talented lieutenants back in politics, Mr. Thaksin will be a formidable force again. Ms. Yingluck made a slew of ambitious promises to improve the lot of the poor, but it’s unlikely she can carry them out without her brother’s direct help.
On the other side, the Democrat Party and the yellow shirts face a bleaker future. Having outlived their usefulness, they have evidently been forsaken by their backers in the military and the palace.
Having failed to use populism to fight populism, these institutions are counting on the judiciary and the unelected bodies strengthened by the military’s 2007 constitution to rein in Mr. Thaksin. The Constitutional Court recently stopped the parliament from debating constitutional amendments to loosen the grip of these safeguards. Should they fail, there is always the threat of lese majeste accusations and another military coup.
The palace must regard this as an imperfect solution, but with the king ailing and elderly, it had to reach an accommodation with Mr. Thaksin. The fact that the deal is opposed by radicals on both sides suggests that it has a chance of restoring balance to Thai politics, at least for a time. – Wall Street Journal