Paving over the cracks in reconciliation

Paving over the cracks in reconciliation

After two and a half years without serious and meaningful efforts to reconcile political conflict, the military government is vowing to press ahead with its national reform and development strategy. But the regime will find it hard to achieve meaningful reconciliation if it is not committed to a return to full democracy and applying the rule of law.

Upon its announcement last week of a new initiative to bring about national reform, reconciliation and development, the government set up four committees, branded as a mechanism to help advance the "roadmap to democracy" and work towards achieving the goals. What is hidden, however, is its true authoritarian agenda to manipulate political outcomes after a new general election is held either this year or the next.

Overseen by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the four committees are tasked with handling the 20-year national strategy, national reform, national reconciliation and the government's strategic management. Three of the four panels will be headed by deputy prime ministers, and all of them will work in tandem with the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA).

Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

Kicking off the initiative, Gen Prayut held the first meeting late last week of "stakeholders" who are representatives of the so-called "Five Rivers"-- the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), NRSA, NLA, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) and the cabinet.

The media's attention seems to be on the reconciliation panel run by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who hinted that political parties will be engaged and consulted, but colour-coded political conflicts will be off the table. This means the panel is unlikely to get to the root of the problem, and it is not surprising. The NCPO has maintained such an attitude, since it took power in 2014, against its pledge to reconcile political conflicts.

Is this four-committee initiative a promising sign? Let's make a few observations.

First of all, the initiative will not change the roadmap. Rather than returning the country to a fully fledged democracy, the roadmap will offer a democracy controlled by leaders of the current regime who will manoeuvre in a more authoritarian way -- upfront and behind the scenes. The present draft constitution sets conditions for that environment to thrive. It will allow the NCPO to select and appoint members of the senate. Independent organisations with enhanced powers will operate without proper checks-and-balances.

The nation's development platforms, meanwhile, will be predetermined by the constitution and the 20-year national strategy. Both are extended versions of the five-year National Economic and Social Development Plan, designed by technocrats in conjunction with their allies in the private and non-governmental sectors, without meaningful participation from other stakeholders and the public.

Some may argue the regime has achieved political stability. But it is stability under the barrel of a gun and the heavy-handed rule of law. The streets are peaceful at the cost of freedom of speech and democratic laws.

In addition, such stability has failed to bring about economic recovery and growth -- something that the regime has promised to the Thai middle class. The economy was more vibrant across the board under a democratic government.

The government's Thailand 4.0 economic model is merely a marketing tool. Its contents are largely the same as the policies of other governments. They are just words on a document. Intellectual leadership in directing change and development is not enough, while public participation in the making and implementation of development plans is lacking. People must be engaged so that they can own these plans if the regime wants to make them work.

The government has to realise that only democracy can pave the way for political reconciliation.

The new initiative does not seem to provide such an environment. On the contrary, it is seen as a consolidation of powers granted to groups of people recruited by and associated with the regime. Similarly, the drafting of organic laws and other pieces of legislation by the CDC and the NLA is seen as a process to design an enabling environment for the regime and small groups of people to manage and control post-election politics. Bodies such as the strategic plan committee, the NRSA and various independent organisations will be equipped with enhanced powers to put in-check elected offices.

As for the latest initiative, the four committees will draft frameworks and work plans to further direct how resources will be allocated and what bureaucratic entities will be created.

Gen Prayut was not joking when he envisaged how the nation's will be developed during the next 15 years under the national strategy.

He may not remain in power by then, although it is conceivable he could, but the apparatus of the regime will dominate the agenda for years to come.

Elected representatives will provide the facade, an icing on the cake -- a cooptation of democracy by the military regime.

True, politicians in the past had their flaws. And it is a reason why the public was tolerant of the coup and the military's rhetoric of reform and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the current regime has not initiated wide-ranging systematic reform. Instead, it has suppressed political opposition.

The police remains untouched and the military is still untouchable.

The government has merely adopted unimaginative stopgap measures to handle ad hoc problems such as illegal public vans or floods.

Any future meetings on national reconciliation that Gen Prawit expects to call will end up as a series of shows for the media, if representatives of political parties show up at all.

The best reconciliation is a return to democracy and the fair application of the rule of law. That means political differences can be openly debated and reconciled, aiming to reach decisions which can advance public interests.

No group of political protesters should be allowed to break the law by, for example, occupying streets, commercial districts, international airports or government buildings like we have seen during the previous years of political turmoil.

Those who broke the law during the course of the colour-coded political conflicts should face the music through a fair and transparent due process before any amnesty proposal is contemplated.

Most importantly, reconciliation can take place if the security forces -- the police and the military -- are committed to democratic principles and support elected governments. This is where the regime should start its reconciliation process.

Suranand Vejjajiva

Former secretary-general to the prime minister

Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

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