Truth will be buried under blanket amnesty

Truth will be buried under blanket amnesty

No society gets many chances to make a reckoning with history.

Thai society, like most, has seen plenty of violence gone unanswered. The culture of impunity has flourished in Thailand, emboldening military leaders to crack down on resisters and carry out coup after coup, giving themselves legal immunity by passing amnesties for their actions.

No military official was ever tried for successfully overthrowing a government. No Thai leader, military or otherwise, has ever gone before the court charged with killing protesters.

In 1973, the ruling junta was allowed to leave the country. In 1978, an amnesty was passed that absolved both leaders and protesters of any wrongdoing in the bloody massacre of 1976.

After the military crackdown on protesters in May 1992, a report on the incident issued years later was rendered useless on grounds of defamation and established nothing other than protesters had been killed. The record of these events was lost to time, all in the name of repairing a divided society. As it turned out, it did seem that Thai society was willing to forgive and forget.

Forgetting, though, exacts its own price. When the truth of events is obscured time and again, the very value of truth itself is degraded. People tell themselves they got by once again without dealing with the truth. They are lulled into a false sense of confidence that they don't need the truth to get by.

The coup makers of 2006 no doubt felt they would benefit from the patterned response of Thai society to illegal overthrows of government. They cleverly slipped an amnesty provision into the 2007 constitution. They felt confident that memory of the coup would pass into time.

But the 2006 coup is unique for Thai society. It is the coup that was neither forgotten nor forgiven. The coup makers had not accounted for the vastly changed political landscape. The rise of the yellow shirts was met by a rise of the politically awakened movement of the United Front against Dictatorship and for Democracy (UDD), or red shirts.

Dedicated to the rule of law, impartial judicial treatment, and elections as the primary vehicle for expression of the popular will, the red shirts protested against the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva in April and May of 2010. They claimed the government had been installed with the help of the military, and called for the government to step down and call new elections.

The red shirts were the subject of government violence in a crackdown that claimed almost 100 lives. The red shirts, too, were accused of employing armed units against the government. Faced with a litany of charges ranging from lese majeste to terrorism, UDD leaders affirmed one key principle in the heat of the crackdown and to this day: No amnesty. They were willing to submit themselves to the court so they could clear themselves at the risk of being condemned.

Likewise, Mr Abhisit and his security head, Suthep Thaugsuban, made the same commitment: to be tried for their actions during the crackdown.

Thai society needs to be clear on this point, this consensus of views between antagonists, on the need for the truth to come out, and the venue is the Thai courts.

The Pheu Thai Party-led government came into power on a promise of passing an amnesty bill that would release red-shirt followers from various legal entanglements in the justice system. With a fairly strong mandate of 48.5% of votes in general elections in 2011, Pheu Thai had the obligation to move forward on an amnesty bill.

The original version vetted would not exculpate leaders of any movement _ yellow or red _ and there was question as to whether the coup makers would be covered. What's important was that the process of trying to discover the truth was untouched.

But then on Oct 18 the house committee overseeing the bill revised the draft into a blanket amnesty. Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed former prime minister who some say would be the primary beneficiary of the blanket amnesty, said the country needed "resetting back to zero".

The families of relatives killed or injured in the crackdown cried foul. For them, there was no resetting the clock. Red-shirt leaders cried foul.

They want their day in court. The Democrats and their allies, seeing the possibility of their nemesis Thaksin returning to Thailand scot free, cried foul.

Pheu Thai leaders have committed their greatest error to record for political and personal expediency. The blanket amnesty robs one of the few points of consensus, and a noble one at that, between red shirts and Democrats.

But a blanket amnesty, besides further dividing Thai society, precludes the possibility of ever dealing with the base illegality of the 2006 coup and discovering the truth about the 2010 crackdown.

There is still some hope, though. The Democrats should reverse their position and support the original amnesty bill. The red-shirt leaders should continue to resist the blanket amnesty and call for a return of the unedited version of the bill.

If the original draft of the bill was passed _ with no protection provided for the coup makers _ prosecutors should move to indict them if and when Article 309 of the 2007 constitution is annulled. This would allow society to see that coups have no place in democratic Thailand. A coup is called by its real name: an illegal overthrow of a democratically-elected government.

Next the key laws or rulings passed by virtue of mechanisms erected by the coup government should be reconsidered by a democratically constituted parliament or appointed body thereof. Laborious and contentious as it may be, it is necessary to provide democratic legitimacy. Laws passed by the coup government could then be scrutinised, kept, amended, or nullified.

Somewhere in that mix, Thaksin's case that sentenced him to two years in jail for abuse of power would come up. It is through this mechanism that his case might be reconsidered or retried. But the key thing is that the evidence for or against him _ the truth, at least of sorts _ would lead such considerations and not the manipulations of a coup government. But at least a semblance of law and order is re-established.

As for establishing the truth of what happened in 2010 and who bears responsibility, it appears the courts might be the last resort.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, although universally praised for most of its recommendations, failed in its report to credibly establish the truth. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand likewise failed in its much-criticised report.

Courts have come under a lot of criticism in the past few years. It is not the perfect vehicle for delivering the truth, but it has recently shown as a whole a more even-handed approach.

In many countries, such as Argentina, there were efforts through the courts to deal with past impunity. It allowed those who suffered from state violence to learn the truth. The truth of events, however provisional and precarious, is better than no truth at all.

The blanket amnesty threatens once again to banish truth from Thailand. The obligations of history are lost to the present and future.

Thai society has a chance to make such reckoning with history. It should not miss it.


David Streckfuss is an independent scholar who writes on Thai political and legal history.

David Streckfuss

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