'Inclusive dialogue' the key to fixing Thailand's ills
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'Inclusive dialogue' the key to fixing Thailand's ills

Luc Stevens is the United Nations Resident Coordinator and leader of the UN Country Team in Thailand. (Photo via UNDP, Thailand)
Luc Stevens is the United Nations Resident Coordinator and leader of the UN Country Team in Thailand. (Photo via UNDP, Thailand)

Thailand is a valued member state of the United Nations. Its leadership in numerous UN bodies and participation in nearly all international human rights mechanisms has in no small measure galvanised decades of the kingdom's economic, social and political development. Today's deep-rooted conflict within Thai society -- aggravated by competing political narratives, growing social and economic inequality, and reluctance to truly listen to each other -- has exacted a toll on many people.

The UN supports the Thai people in development that leaves no one behind -- embodied by the government's leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals. With a commitment to leave no one behind across all groups in conflict, must come efforts to foster a process of inclusive dialogue as the referendum on the draft charter approaches.

The UN has consistently communicated our genuine commitment to support inclusive dialogue. Only with such dialogue can we break destructive cycles of conflict and strengthen capacities for peaceful, credible and democratic national development.

As Thailand's partner, the UN therefore remains worried about the absence of an inclusive dialogue process. Such a dialogue would promote reconciliation, bolster national unity and create moves toward a shared view of the future that leaves no one behind. At best, only tepid commitment to such a process currently exists. At worst, inclusiveness and dialogue is purported to be where it is not. No one has demonstrated the willingness to move toward the very difficult middle ground and engage in a true process of dialogue.

Dialogue should not be confused with negotiation, debate or political elbowing where zero-sum strategies reinforce hostility and confrontation.

Dialogue is not easy. It requires credible people moving to the uncomfortable middle, encouraging an alternative to exclusion and intolerance as not only possible, but necessary.

In his TEDx talk, Norway's former Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre explained, "Dialogue is not easy -- not between individuals, not between groups, not between governments -- but it is very necessary."

Dialogue requires a safe space. Facilitators use such spaces to help people "listen to each other deeply with intent to understand why others see things differently and, importantly, be changed by what they learn".

Dialogue is not about who is right or has more power. The purpose is to understand differences and turn them into collective strengths. It is not a one-off event; it is a long process. It is not meant to determine who was right or wrong, but to understand the journey from where we came and what our shared future holds.

Dialogue cannot be one-sided. It cannot be driven by the powerful talking to each other, passing legislation and policies with binding implications for the excluded or disenfranchised. It cannot be driven by the opposition talking only to each other, trying to out-manoeuvre the powers-that-be with whom they disagree. It cannot be achieved through sloganeering and public relations campaigns.

Dialogue occurs at the uncomfortable middle where sincere people show there is an alternative to the easy extremes, where people create the processes that produce credible, legitimate mandates.

Dialogue is not replaceable by courts. Contested laws -- those without popular or credible mandate -- do not deliver justice in the true sense of the word, never lead to restored relationships and always shortchange consensus.

Dialogue has no room for hierarchy. It is much more difficult to sit face-to-face with those with whom we politically and emotionally disagree than more easily attacking them at a distance, or through social media or a press release. "If the only space you have is a competitive space," Roelf Meyer, de Klerk's chief negotiator during South Africa's transition, once said, "then you're in trouble." Genuine dialogue moves us out of a highly restrictive, combustible competitive space and into a safe arena where feelings, values, and realities are shared and deeply understood.

Dialogue excludes no one and no issue. There is no formula. Inclusion means drawing in the most marginalised alongside the most prominent and listening to all narratives. The more we talk, the more we understand how little we know about others, to paraphrase Mr Støre. In South Africa, for example, Desmond Tutu and business leaders stepped into the uncomfortable middle to bring people together through horizontal dialogue.

Inclusive dialogues have proven useful in many contexts where conflict parties possessed deeply held beliefs of uniqueness and singularity. They have resulted in consensus solutions that are credible and legitimately accepted by all citizens, such as truth commissions or social cohesion plans, national strategies and reform programmes -- different bridge-building efforts within divided societies. Make no mistake, whatever they are called, none must be undertaken as bureaucratic exercises and all must be inclusive enough to ensure decisions are legitimate and credible.

Today we face many challenges. As Thailand's friend and long-time partner, the UN stands with the Thai people in pursuing an inclusive dialogue process for all groups to listen with an intent to change and an intent to find willingness to create the country's future together.

The UN is committed to supporting an inclusive dialogue process that can shape a shared future. We welcome those who are committed to moving to the uncomfortable middle to dialogue with each other. We will support you. We will work together with you. Let's talk.

Luc Stevens

United Nations Resident Coordinator

Luc Stevens is the United Nations Resident Coordinator.

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