Reconciliation should spearhead reform
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Reconciliation should spearhead reform

During the past decade of Thailand's prolonged conflict and polarisation, the notions of reform and reconciliation have often been discussed interchangeably.

In fact, reform and reconciliation — though related — are distinct.

Thais turn out for a military organised reconciliation festival in July. Reform could help usher in political stability if it tackles common concerns with an eye on reconciliation rather than imposing unpopular change that may exacerbate tensions.

Without reconciliation as a final objective, reforms may become misguided and misplaced, leading to greater conflict. Reconciliation ideas are what Thailand most urgently needs to achieve peace and stability. Political reforms should be subservient and shaped to serve the goals of broader reconciliation towards a new and recalibrated balance of the country's state and society.

The buzzword back during 2010-13 was "reconciliation", following the state suppression of street protests by one side of the Thai divide. After the July 2011 election and the rise of Yingluck Shinawatra under her self-exiled brother Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party, reconciliation efforts continued, but became lopsided and ended in failure, after the top-down imposition of the ill-fated amnesty bill. The Yingluck government's amnesty move deliberately side-stepped public input and opposition debate, and was promulgated under the guise of reconciliation.

Today the word on everyone's lips is "reform". As the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and its attendant National Reform Council promote reforms, it behoves them to avoid the mistakes of the past.

Rather than imposing potentially unpopular reforms on controversial issues that may exacerbate tensions, the military government should focus on the "low-hanging fruit" — issues which are undisputed by all sides.

It is not difficult to do so. Since the conflict and violence in April-May 2010, Thailand has had five main reconciliation studies and reports by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, the King Prachadipok's Institute (KPI), the National Human Rights Commission, the National Reform Committee and National Reform Assembly, and People's Information Centre. Despite minor differences, these five reports offer similar views and recommendations on the future of Thai politics and society.

The reconciliation process that began after the April-May 2010 violence identified the catalysts and instigators of the conflict and set out a series of recommendations or paths towards reconciliation. However, these reconciliation reports were met with allegations that they were government-commissioned and therefore biased, stacked with anti-Thaksin and anti-red shirt analysts. Reconciliation ultimately became politicised, a new battlefront in the cycle of conflict, with all sides willing to torpedo the process for their own benefit.

In mid-2013, the Yingluck government, which came into office in 2011 after a convincing election victory, broached the idea of an amnesty to promote reconciliation. In fact, the Pheu Thai Party's amnesty bill emerged from the KPI's reconciliation study, which recommended that "an amnesty for participants in protests, security and state officials … should be granted". Despite wide-ranging public opposition and three other reconciliation reports cautioning against it, Pheu Thai rammed its amnesty programme through parliament in the wee hours, circumventing opposition debate and public scrutiny.

The current military-dominated government still has time and space to salvage the present round of reforms by avoiding the pitfalls of the 2010-13 processes and by taking stock of recommendations that are common in all of the five major reconciliation reports.

Common recommendations include concerns of influence or control over the media. Four of the five reconciliation reports agree that the conduct of the media and use of media broadcasting by both sides had a significant impact in creating a divisive atmosphere in society and contributed to the escalation of violence during the conflict. However, this does not mean that the government should be able to exert any type of direct pressure over the media, notwithstanding a regulatory role. Freedom of the media and freedom of speech are essential rights in any democracy, and there should be laws to ensure that they cannot be impinged upon by any party. The media must be wary of aggravating or encouraging hatred. And they must take pride in upholding their neutrality and ethical standards.

Another common issue is the erosion of checks and balances, a prejudiced justice system and inconsistencies in the way that laws are applied, which contributed to the scale of the 2010 conflict and violence. The reports all agree that the lack of confidence in the judicial system to provide fair, impartial and transparent verdicts, as well as attempts to use the law — particularly lese majeste — to discredit or eliminate opponents, has been a major contributing factor in the widening divisions in Thailand's society and polity.

A way forward on this front requires a complete rebalance in the way that court decisions are both made and accepted. The establishment of a judiciary which can make impartial, transparent and consistent rulings is essential if the public, interest groups and state authorities are to accept their decisions, respect their independence and value the supremacy of the law.

The reconciliation reports also agreed that improper use of lese majeste was more likely to draw the royal family into political conflict and expose it to increased criticism, and that a review of the severity of punishment and the scope for increased judicial discretion may be appropriate to bring this particular law in line with societal expectations.

As civilian oversight of the military is a necessary precondition of a strong, stable and sustainable democracy, the reports concurred that military involvement in Thai politics has harmed the transition and consolidation of Thailand's democracy. Military intervention or interference has meant that both politicians and the electorate have not learned how conflicts can be resolved within the democratic system. Accordingly, the NRC, military and political parties must look for ways to reform security sector governance so that the army is no longer required or able to oversee political processes.

The reports also share similar conclusions on issues including the protection of freedom of assembly and creation of new guidelines for police to ensure that protests remain peaceful. Reforms to deal with fundamental problems of economic disparity, corruption, the urban-rural divide, public participation, and transparency in constitution-drafting were also key common findings of the reconciliation reports.

These issues were identified as critical to the reforms but could not be completed because of the politicisation of the reconciliation process.

The latest coup has endowed the military government with a limited period of top-down decision-making. The ruling generals, retired and active, can implement these crucial and uncontested reforms at will, without the mudslinging and street protests that hampered previous reconciliation efforts.

Thailand's political reforms over the past decade have been quixotic and convoluted because they were politicised and exploited by one side or the other. To achieve lasting peace and move Thailand into a new, workable constitutional era under democratic rule, reformers must think first and foremost about reconciliation.

Without reconciliation aspirations, reforms will, yet again, likely come to naught.

Jacob Hogan is a research fellow and Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. This article is drawn from a research project on reconciliation pathways, supported by the Embassy of Switzerland in Bangkok.

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