There are a few “buzzwords” in Thailand that have been very popular for a few years now. “Reform” and “reconciliation”; these are two of the main ones; politicians, generals and the media certainly enjoy sprinkling them into their speeches and slogans.
In this post, I’d like to talk a little about the latter word- the whole concept of reconciliation. Before that, however, let’s spend some time on analysing reform in Thailand. ‘Reform before elections’ was the rallying cry of the PDRC back in 2013 and 2014, and supposedly it is the what drives the current military-led government. From what we can see so far, the wide-reaching reforms that many desired are still absent, but for now I believe the government should be given the benefit of the doubt. Reform is to be written into the next constitution of Thailand; there was plenty of it in the draft constitution that was rejected last year. Overuse of Section 44, the clause in the interim constitution that allows Prayut to wield unlimited power would lead to accusations of authoritarianism, so it is perhaps wiser from a public relations standpoint for reform to be codified into a constitution that would have to be approved in a democratic referendum.
What about reconciliation, then?
There is no question that reconciliation is badly needed. Thailand to this day remains a deeply divided country, separated by an artificial fault line that delineates people as ‘yellow’ or ‘red’. Never in recent history has the people of Thailand been so divided, often pitting themselves against each other in the streets of Bangkok. And for the country to continue on a path towards stability, reconciliation must happen. A country cannot stand confident in its stability if there is still so much fundamental disagreement and distrust.
But how reconciliation can be reached is the question. The chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, Meechai Ruchuphan, earlier proposed the creation of a ‘reconciliation committee’ that would be tasked with bringing about unity. Prayut demurred on this topic and referred the question to deputy prime minister and legal expert Wissanu Krea-ngarm. Wissanu eventually said that he disagreed; “It’s a question of the heart, not a legal issue.” Eventually, Meechai himself admitted that he couldn’t think of a legal mechanism that would be able to resolve conflicts and bring about reconciliation.
It is no surprise that legal scholars are puzzled when asked about trying to make reconciliation happen. As the deputy prime minister astutely observed, reconciliation is really a question of how to truly bridge the political divide in the minds of people, not simply trying to ‘legislate’ a law on reconciliation and making it happen in name only. To do this would require a method that creates a genuine sense of reconciliation, not just a phony campaign. And the method must not be controversial, either; we know how the Amnesty Bill, which supposedly was about bringing back national unity, ended.
A good first step, perhaps, would be to recognise that there are genuine reasons for why the political divide has been created in the first place. Painting the red-shirts simply as uneducated vote-sellers does nothing to address the fact that the North and Northeast still remain relatively poor and disenfranchised from the centralised political system; painting the other side simply as myopic elitists similarly does not recognise that there is a genuine distaste for the corruption of the Shinawatras and their governments.
Seth Mydans in National Geographic writes, just days after the coup in 2014:
About 10 percent of Thailand’s population of 67 million now lives in Bangkok, a figure that rises when the several million migrant workers from rural areas are counted. With paved roads, electricity, motorbikes, and television sets, Thailand’s villagers have become some of the most affluent poor people in the world, acquiring the academic label “middle-income peasants.”
This rise in well-being has brought dissatisfaction with the glaring gulfs between rich and poor. As a result Thai society has been undergoing a historic realignment in which the poorer classes, encouraged by ambitious politicians, have been seeking their share of the prosperity and clout that have always been beyond their reach. An alliance of Thailand’s old political institutions—with the palace, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the military at their core—has been pushing back, defending the privileges of a hierarchical system that governs both public and private life.
While I disagree with a key point- the “pushing back” of a “hierarchical system” is not what I think a particularly accurate description of the situation- it is important to look at the main gist of what Mydans is writing. He analysed that economic inequality, and a lack of equal access to opportunities, is a driving force in what is causing the political discourse of today. It creates a resentful electorate that is ready to vote for populists such as Thaksin and Yingluck; the middle and upper class, on the other hand, are appalled at the incompetence and corruption of these figures.
Poverty has declined substantially over the last 30 years from 67% in 1986 to 11% in 2014 as incomes have risen. Poverty in Thailand is primarily a rural phenomenon, with over 80 percent of the country’s 7.3 million poor living in rural areas (as of 2013), though a third of the poor are now in urban areas outside of Bangkok as well. Some regions—particularly the deep South and Northeast—and some ethnic groups lag greatly behind others, and the benefits of economic success have not been shared equally, especially between Bangkok, Thailand’s largest urban area, and the rest of the country. Income inequality and lack of equal opportunities have persisted. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, has fallen in recent years, but stays consistently high above 0.45.
From this, it is clear that inequality still remains in Thailand. And, as other analysts have noted, this seems to be breeding political bickering. There are parallels in other countries. In the United States, where income inequality has reached levels similar to the Gilded Age in the early 20th century, there is a highly polarised political system and high bipartisanship. As distinguished economists such as Paul Krugman have noted, economic inequality breeds political division in the United States. Perhaps it is the same in Thailand.
In the end, there is no clear answer to how we can bring about national reconciliation. But what we do know is this: we cannot simply legislate a clause in the constitution that commands people to love each other again, for reconciliation is a state of mind that cannot simply be forced. To bring it about, the underlying tectonic plates of economic inequality must be addressed and corruption must be reduced through reform of the political system.
It may not be enough to have just the legal experts working on national reconciliation after all.