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Courting nonviolent confrontation in a
Thai house divided: What can be done?

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, Bangkok
Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University
Chairperson, Strategic Nonviolence Commission
Thailand Research Fund

April 14, 2009
Written before the April clashes

After a dinner conversation in February 2010, with a colleague monitoring conflict in Nepal, the Czech Sinologist based in Hong Kong concurred with others that “the situation here is a big mess.”  Despite relative calm after the judgment day when the court verdict was delivered on February 26, many believe that the storm is brewing this week with the news about the impending red shirt’s determination to hold a large-scaled rally against the Abhisit government beginning on March 12, it would be another fateful moment testing the resilience of Thai society.

Given the ways some media choose to report the protest and portray the protesters, I won’t be surprised if some diplomats would report back to their governments that the Thai government is quite nervous while contemplating the possibility of issuing a warning to their citizens against visiting Thailand at the moment. Some foreign companies might have already decided to put off their meetings in Bangkok due to the rising cost of insurance when traveling to a high risk area. 

This article is an attempt to argue that although some risks of violence cannot be ignored, there are still ways to court this conflict along the nonviolent route. It begins with a brief discussion on what is currently happening and why we should be concerned. Then in order not to panic about the situation, both nonviolent aspirations and experiences in Thai society would be explored. Finally, ways to foster and strengthen the nonviolent character of this conflict will be suggested.


Intractable conflicts

There are at least two ways to view the present conflict in Thai society, and both are related.

From an agency perspective, this is about Thaksin, his assets, his political party, his media, his money and the conflict is between those who are against  him or with him. But from a structural perspective, the conflict is between two large movements, in color-coded terms – yellow and red. These movements have supports from different types of Thai elites, financial back up, media channels, connection with different political parties, and sizable popular support.

This conflict is difficult to resolve because it is at once about a) the political goal of Thai society – more or less tradition-based democracy with a strong role or no role for the bureaucratic elites; b) the political means accepted - general elections as the sole democratic arbiter of the question “who governs” or election as an inadequate democratic qualifier; c) the political imagination of what constitute “being Thai” which involves questions about loyalty, fairness and legitimation of governance.

It is perhaps in this sense that the present Thai society is not unlike a house divided where the contested commitments may be as crucial as the confrontation being produced.

On top of this, there is something difficult about conflict that has increasingly become intractable as in Thailand at present. Today about 40% of armed conflicts have persisted for 10 years or more, with 25% of wars lasting more than 25 years. There are at least 50 factors that have rendered a conflict intractable. (Coleman 2003) Most relevant to the present situation here are:

  1. The context of power imbalance between the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, and political instability;
  2. The issues seen as related to dignity and justice;
  3. The relationship between conflicting parties seen as destructive but inescapable;
  4. Disputants feel trapped in a “malignant” conflict process that is irreversible.

One of the most crucial aspects of intractable conflict is that the longer it continues, the more it undermines existing conflict mitigation institutions and practices and renders them powerless while divisive and sometimes deadly conflict will become institutionalized. If violence is used and conflicts turn deadly, it would help seal the intractable process and Thai society would be plunged further into the abyss with little possibility of redemption.

Aspirations and realities - panic?

Given recent bomb explosions in Bangkok and disappearance of war weapons in the south, should one panic about the coming political protest this weekend? To answer this, some facts need to be looked at. At least 8 people were killed during different protests in the past three years of this protracted conflict.  In addition, from July 2007 to April 2009, 650 people on the yellow side, 234 on the red side, and 126 policemen have been wounded.

What this means is that although these movements, both yellow and red, claim to protest nonviolently and that by and large governments in the past tried not to use violence against the protesters, violence did take place.

Opinion surveys of poll centers in recent weeks all point in the same direction that common people do not want violence. Many seem to understand that protest has become a form of political expression expected in a democratic society. In addition, listening to several protest leaders, they all stated publicly that the protest would be nonviolent. The prime minister also came out repeatedly to condemn the possible use of violence. He clearly shows that he respects the democratic rights of the protesters while warning that violence would not be tolerated.

More importantly, when facing a nonviolent protest, a government which claims to be democratic, has little choice but to respond nonviolently or risks losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the public both at home and abroad. Despite the internal security law to be used in selected areas, I would say that aspiration common among most in Thai society at this time would be to go through this conflict without violence that would cost people their lives.
Although some institutions responsible for mitigating or settling conflicts might have been weakened as discussed above, it is important to point out that Thai society has emerged as a society with abundant experiences in dealing with protracted conflict without or with minimum violence. Imagine how any other country would have responded with violence when government house was occupied, parliament closed, or international meeting involving heads of state interrupted. The prolonged protests by both sides have provided the Thai security personnel with some experiences in dealing with the protesters fairly nonviolently, if they so choose.


Necessity and possibilities - Northern Ireland as a lesson learned?

The most pertinent question at this point is: What turns a nonviolent protest/movement into violent? Take Northern Ireland as an example of how civil rights movement in the 1960s connected with the subsequent emergence of political violence. In the beginning, despite profound conflict, nobody was killed. Then from 1969 to 1972, 497 people lost their lives.

The basic pattern of escalation was the following: there was a long-term division and tension of interest between the Catholic and the Protestants, each failed by the state which claimed its loyalty but which had not accommodated it persuasively; the call for political change prompted enhanced and probably unrealistic expectation on one side of this divide and unnecessary and exaggerated fears on the other; initial and minor clashes resulted from assertive gestures or reactive moves, faced with a crisis, the state with greatest power and responsibility felt the need to act decisively, but lacked the necessary intelligence to respond subtly; heavy handed military deployment both contained the worst of the situation and worsened crucial relationships in a lastingly disastrous fashion, the fault lines of division became deeper and wider and each side adopted a self-comforting but implausible Manichean reading of the good and evil forces involved; violence generated counter-violence and escalation ensued, as each side pursued an elusive victory through bloody means.

But the most crucial element was that previously marginal and simplistic arguments in favor of aggressive violence appeared to be vindicated during the course of conflict. This allowed the IRA to duly became the major agent of killing within the conflict. (English 2009)
Although the Northern Ireland case is somewhat different from what is going on in Thailand, some lessons can be learned in terms of how conflict moves and its pattern. In order to keep the voice of violence marginalized, apart from humanizing the ways the protesters and their adversaries are represented in their respective media, there is a need to foster conditions that would help the protesters organize their peaceful protest effectively while the government needs to creatively think about nonviolent plans in facing the protest.


My concrete suggestions for the process to remain nonviolent*

Here are some suggestions that would create conditions conducive to nonviolent confrontation in a house divided.
First, there are 16 guns for a hundred people in Thailand as compared to 7.2 in Colombia and 4.7 in the Philippines. (Small Arms Survey 2007) The proliferation of firearms in this country is notorious. The success of a nonviolent protest depends on how organized and disciplined the protesters are. If a nonviolent rally is desirable for all parties involved, it is the duty of the government to help the protesters organize the protest peacefully by providing them with assistance to ensure that no one attending the rally is with any kind of weapon, especially firearms. In fact, the protest organizers could request the government to provide them with metal detectors to screen those prepared to attend the rally. Perhaps, beyond the protest this weekend, this might be the time to begin to think about a weapon-free Bangkok.

Second, foreign and Thai journalists and media. I am certain that there will be a large number of Thai and foreign journalists whose tasks are to cover the protest and whose presence would in some ways help mitigate conflict from turning violent. Perhaps, some other international ngo’s with experiences in witnessing peaceful protest could be encouraged to be present as well.

Third, the government has prepared to deploy 50,000 security personnel to maintain law and order during the coming protest. Some of them would not be armed with guns. But it would be interesting to think of a special unarmed unit specifically designed to nonviolently face nonviolent protesters.

Fourth, though the government is emphatic about intending to deal with the protesters peacefully, they have not thought of the space of confrontation in any other terms but territorial-based security. From a nonviolent perspective, it is possible to think of the space of possible confrontation from a cultural perspective.

In the past, some Thai ngo’s have ordained trees in the forest as a way to prevent them from the greedy saws of woodcutters. In canals close to many Buddhist temples, there are signs depicting the canals as “forgiving zone” and few fishermen would dare to violate the cultural taboo by fishing there. Is it therefore possible, to find ways to turn the protest site into something not unlike the “forgiving zone”.

The protest sites could be blessed by religious personnel, sanctified by holy rituals, making such space sacred and that all who come to use the space as a platform for their political expression as well as  those with task to maintain peace in the city should do so without resorting to hatred and violence.  
Thai society could move together in courting nonviolent conflict with realistic understanding of the changes that is taking place, remembering the abundant experiences in courting nonviolent conflicts, critical about the message of hatred being produced, and mustering sufficient courage to explore creative nonviolent alternatives.

* Sadly we know now that these hopes were crushed.


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