Justice, but at what price?

It is no secret that Thailand has been stuck in a protracted colour-coded political conflict for more than six years without any sign of when this conflict will ever be resolved or eased. It is also no secret that all attempts at national reconciliation have become bogged down simply because the opposing key players in the conflict are unable to sit together at the same table to resolve their differences in a mature and reasonable manner without pointing accusatory fingers at one another.

The political quagmire which Thailand has created for itself has sapped the country's ability to move forward both politically and economically.

Ask any foreign investor about what their main concern is about investing or doing business in Thailand, and the most common answer is political instability as a result of the long-standing conflict.

The Nitirat group of academics recently proposed constitutional amendments to grant an amnesty to all offenders arrested, prosecuted or sentenced for their involvement in the political crises between September 2006 and May 2010.

Like other attempts at reconciliation through the submission of reconciliation bills to parliament, Nitirat's proposal was greeted with the cold shoulder from both the government and opposition camps until it was given a new lease of life when a splinter group of the red-shirt movement, called the "January 29 for the Release of Political Prisoners Group," took to the streets on Tuesday demanding the government adopt the Nitirat group's proposed charter amendment.

The group leader, Suda Rankupan, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said the political conflict which has gripped the country since the coup in September 2006 has caused extensive damage to the country, resulted in deaths and injuries and led to more than 1,000 people being arrested and detained by the now-defunct Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation.

In contrast to the government's half-hearted response to the group's proposal, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was willing to discuss the amnesty issue on the condition that it is limited to political offenders and does not include those charged with criminal or corruption offences.

An amnesty for people charged with defying the emergency decree during political protests over the past six years _ and not including those charged with criminal offences such as arson, robbery or shootings causing injury or death _ makes sense because many of the offenders believe they were fighting for democracy as they defied the emergency decree.

Granting them bail as a prelude to an amnesty would help ease tension and ease the hardship of families whose breadwinners have been held in custody since their arrest, in some cases for many months.

An amnesty has been deployed in many countries as a political tool of compromise and reunion or reconciliation following a civil war or a serious political conflict.

In Thailand, 13 amnesty laws have been promulgated since 1932, mostly to free coup-makers from criminal liability.

One day we may have to face up to the following tough question: "Do we want peace and reconciliation, or legal justice?"

In Sierra Leone following a devastating civil war, the United States and Britain which intervened in the bloody conflict agreed that "peace and harmony" were more important than pursuing the culprits. There is a lesson to be learned there.