The latest gauge of Thailand's divisiveness transpired last Monday with a misnamed event titled "Uniting for the Future: Learning from Each Other's Experiences". Its outcome was almost predictably discouraging.
Thailand's divide runs as deep and wide as it has done over the past decade. Thais are neither near a convergent future nor have they come anywhere nearer to terms over divergent grievances from their past.
Reconciliation and compromise are still a work in progress, not ready to break out until the key protagonists and their respective camps and columns recognise that they have only each other to turn to in future. Promoting peace and a way forward should never cease but it takes perseverance, patience and the sober realisation that Thailand's polarisation will be prolonged for a time until more conducive conditions emerge.
Headlining the daylong "uniting" forum this past week was former British prime minister Tony Blair, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and justice and human rights expert Priscilla Hayner.
The latter two have visited previously and worked with the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT). A handful of related experts from Sweden and the United States along with two Thai permanent secretaries involved with TRCT findings and implementation were on hand in the second half of the day.
But Mr Blair was the marquee speaker who attracted viewer attention much like people who had little interest in tennis tuning in to see Rafael Nadal play in the Thailand Open a few years ago. It was a spectacle not to be missed.
Viewers and those in the audience largely held to preconceived views. Whatever these outside experts said and however they said it was selectively adapted to suit their positions.
Thus, Ms Hayner's points about reconciliation being a "process" that cannot be "rushed" and driven by "hidden" agenda were spot-on for one side of Thailand's divide, especially as they think of the government's current push for an amnesty bill in parliament that may absolve wrongdoers, including former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's all-purpose menace.
Mr Ahtisaari drew lessons from conflict resolution in Namibia, Aceh and Kosovo where trust was imperative and time-consuming. It was a process that had to take account of past woes and grievances but had to believe that the future can and must be different from the past.
As the first speaker, Mr Blair effectively stole the show. Notwithstanding his critics and detractors the world over who despise his war policies in the 2000s and commercialism out of office, Mr Blair displayed a rare gift of statesmanship through his eloquent elaboration, mastery of the subject matter, force of personality, commanding presence and other subtle skills of a successful politician. He was speaking about other conflict areas, and in fact his five principles for conflict resolution are not new, as he has given similar talks elsewhere.
But these five points have become the talk of the town. Even though they are not profound, they hit home and cut right through the Thai divide.
The five points revolve around five words: future, past, cooperation, democracy and effectiveness.
The last three are fairly straightforward. After coming to terms, people will need a modality and framework to move ahead, as was the case with power-sharing in Northern Ireland, Mr Blair's most famous conflict settlement. Democracy must be genuine, not merely majority rule over minority rights, but how the majority relates to the minority based on shared goals and values. Politics must not be corrupt, and has to be inclusive, effective and responsive to popular needs and grievances.
But it is the first two principles about the future and the past that have become the recurring and overarching themes of the day, most relevant to Thailand's political imbroglio.
As an illustration of the dilemmas of seeing the future and coming to terms with the past in Thailand, the last input from the participating audience on site was instructive because it has become an unintended source of controversy. It came succinctly from former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan, a former Democrat Party executive who remains close to the party. Expressed as a rhetorical question just as time had run out, his metaphorical point was that much of what ails Thailand comes from abroad by way of Skype, unmistakably a reference to Thaksin.
It was a fitting statement for the time and place as it reflected the world view of one side of the Thai divide that Thaksin is the source and sum of problems and difficulties engendered by Thailand's political crisis in recent years.
But it was a statement to be aired more than a question in quest of an answer from prominent foreign speakers who had repeatedly declined to address and trespass into the Thai dilemma head-on. For the other side of the divide, Thaksin is not the problem but the solution or at least part of their solution as they have kept flocking to the polls in his favour under three party banners time and again since 2001.
According to the formal programme, which was not made available to audiences at home, Mr Blair's session was to finish at 11.30am and resume at 1.15pm, an odd time to wrap up because most morning seminars usually break for lunch at noon.
But such was the case, and Mr Blair's tight Middle East-related schedule had him landing at 5am for the 8.45am start, later taking in interviews and meetings that included the opposition Democrat Party. And he was supposed to leave before nightfall, although his handlers were cagey about his schedule due to security reasons. Sticking to the formal programme was advisable to accommodate speakers' schedules.
The Blair episode this week is likely to be a storm in a teacup in hindsight, partly driven by an intensely competitive media industry. Yet it indicates how divided Thailand still is. People heard what they wanted to hear and took away what served their biases because they have different inklings of the future and feel different pains about the past.
Thai politics is like an incomplete bottle of water. One side sees it as half empty, the other as half full. All sides argue about who was responsible for the emptiness. Neither side can take a good sip as the squabbles carry on. Both sides need to find ways to fill up the bottle later as they need it and it is all they have got. But they are not yet ready to willingly accept that the emptiness is gone for good and must be refilled.
It is a common story in conflict countries but for Thailand's networked and fairly homogenous society the composition of a compromise is within grasp in a future enabling environment, when key leaders and stakeholders are willing to make mutual concessions and accommodation.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor of International Political Economy and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.
About the author
- Writer: Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Position: Director of the Institute of Security and Internat