Forget politics and fight for what's right
In my years of working in the news business, the most memorable press conference I have ever attended occurred right after Black May in 1992.
The person giving the press conference was Prawase Wasi. At that time, the respected civil society leader teamed up with two other scholars, Saneh Chamarik and Rapee Sagarik under the moniker of "senior citizens". They called for a peaceful resolution to the political conflicts and for national unity.
I remember that event so well because of its unusual atmosphere. It was held early in the morning in a school classroom. Few reporters attended it as the country was still shell-shocked by the violence which had left 40 people dead.
All of the reporters, myself included, covered the protest, though. We saw the casualties and bullets up close. We were pushed out of the protest site by lines of soldiers shooting into the sky right behind us. We were emotionally involved in the unfolding of dramatic political events.
What was different back then was that there was no polarisation among the general public. The line of division was clear: between the government _ seen as dictatorial _ and the public demanding democracy. It's not like now, when people seem to be fighting over shades of democracy and where there are no clear ideological lines.
By the time of Dr Prawase's press conference, the protest had been dispersed. Suchinda Kraprayoon and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang were seen having an audience in front of His Majesty on TV. We still did not know how things would proceed at that stage.
There was a lot of anger as journalists and the public in general were questioning whether the "people's killers" would be brought to justice, or would be exempted from their crimes the way the powers-that-be have always been, through a special amnesty law.
In that regard, the atmosphere was quite similar then to now.
Even though the stark political divide was missing in May 1992, the opposition to a wholesale amnesty exonerating everyone involved in the deadly crackdown against demonstrators was no different from the opposition of today. Opposition is steadily building against the Pheu Thai Party's bill to provide a blanket amnesty to everything and everyone involved in political activities since before the Sept 19, 2006 coup.
An unusual thing happened at that press conference in 1992. Dr Prawase had to comfort most of the reporters who ended up crying.
"The government and military killed us and there is nothing we could do about it," one of the reporters told Dr Prawase in tears.
I did not know whether the activist doctor knew about the character of Thai society, or whether he was only trying to give words of comfort to the group of distressed reporters.
What he said that day was that things would always work out. I remember him saying there would always be a way, somewhere or somehow. And I thought: "How unrealistic!" How could things work out when the government that ordered a crackdown on protesters and caused scores of deaths and many more injuries was getting away scot-free? How absurd it was. How could we move on politically when such a glaring exemption was given? What framework would we adhere to in the future, what rule of law?
A few days after that press conference, Gen Suchinda announced his resignation as premier on May 24. One day before that, however, he put into force an executive decree for a political amnesty that absolved everyone; protesters and state authorities, of responsibilities from their involvement in the May crackdown.
There was an attempt by the subsequent government led by then-Democrat leader Chuan Leekpai to nullify the executive degree. The Constitutional Tribunal at that time, however, reasoned that even though the executive decree was cancelled by the cabinet, its effect which was in place from the day it was enacted and could not be rescinded.
So, despite the bitterness and opposition to the blanket amnesty law, things kind of worked out from then on. Most, if not all, of the key partners in the political conflict took a break and let other people take over from them.
The truth of the matter is if we look back at the history of amnesty laws in Thailand, it does not matter how they were written or how they tried to keep certain people accountable. In the end, no state authorities have ever been prosecuted for this type of crackdown.
As discontent over the Pheu Thai-backed blanket amnesty grows and new protests against it brew, it's worth looking back and determining what we really should be fighting for.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.