[Published in The Bangkok Post as “The effect of violence on the future of reconciliation”, May 28, 2010: op-ed.]
That the military would succeed in defeating the UDD, also known as the “red shirts”, and in securing the city space occupied by many who came from rural Thailand was never in doubt. In fact, some from within the security community might regard this operation as a success given the resulted “low” number of casualties. What certainly is , however, is how the military solution chosen by the government and violent methods incorporated by some UDD leadership will shape the form of continuing political conflict in this society.
This article is an attempt to understand the violence effect of the “May 19 incident” on Thai society, especially on future reconciliation efforts. I would argue that any future reconciliation effort with some hope of success would have to begin with a critical acceptance of the violence effect of the “May 19 incident”, which actually began from May 14 and has killed 56, wounded 467 people – among these, 179 people are still hospitalized with 17 in ICU at the time of this writing. It is important to see how this violence has blinded Thai society and simultaneously revealed its face most do not wish to see.
The Violence Effect
In criticizing the effect of vengeful violent action, Gandhi once said that “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”. In the past, I have reformulated this famous Gandhi aphorism to mean that the use of violence will blind its users to both the complex causes of the conflict which gave rise to violence in the first place and the horrible effects of violence on its victims, some of which will not be readily visible.
Most importantly, perhaps, is its blinding effect on other existing nonviolent alternatives that would not have led a society along the path of destruction.
It is commonly known that in the weeks preceding the major violence on May 19, there have been numerous possibilities that could have prevented Thai society from sinking further into such a bloody mess. But those opportunities were sadly denied – perhaps by combined forces of powerful vested interests with a desperate logic insisting that the problem at hand was no longer political one but security related, and that the security imperative dictates that military solution is necessary while “collateral damage” must be tolerated. These forces, among other causes, have blinded those involved from seeing alternatives to the violence which has eventually taken place.
On the other hand, violence does have its revealing effect. Former Haitiian president Leslie Manigat, who took power from Duvalierist officers after they brutally aborted the 1987 election, once said that political violence in Haiti “strips bare the social body” making it possible to see beneath the surface to the real workings of a society. (Danner, 2010) If this is indeed the case, what has this recent violence revealed about Thai society?
Though high on the homicide list of the world and low on the Global Peace Index, Thai society is no different from others, especially in its propensity towards violence. What is unusual, however, is the degree to which it is capable of living in a blissful delusion maintaining that unlike other societies, it is primarily peaceful due to its unique history and culture, violent incidents such as October 6, 1976 and others notwithstanding.
Alongside this delusion is its profane pragmatism that allows the use of violence by some to violate even its sacred space, such as what transpired at the Pathumwanaram Buddhist temple.
With 85 deaths and close to two thousand people wounded, the burning of citizens’ homes and the torching of parts of the business sector in the center of the city during the past two months, the issue of the Abhisit government’s and the UDD leadership’s responsibility is not in question. What certainly is in question is, in what way both sides will come out to shoulder this grave responsibility, a first act essential for the future of reconciliation in this society.
In addition, though there are some heroes emerging from this violent incident such as the young men and women who risk their lives to save others as field medics, nonviolent witnesses, some soldiers, monks who open up their temple, and the little known Catholic priests who also provide their space as safe haven for the people in the midst of shootings and bombings despite criticisms from some corners, among others, I would argue that many of us, not only the present government, the UDD leadership, and Thaksin Shinnawatra, but also the politicians, the business people, the bureaucrats – both civilian and non-civilian, the media, the religious personnel, the intellectuals - myself included, and others in various institutions, should bear some responsibilities in allowing this society to reach such level of violence.
We are part of this problem - some by actively participating in the violence by doing it or by legitimizing it, others by refusing to exercise one’s power to do everything possible to stop it.
This understanding that almost “none of us are without this sin” of the present violence and the appreciation of Thai social body without delusion is crucial for charting the future reconciliation efforts, should one eventually take place.
Future Reconciliation Efforts?
The term “reconciliation” first appeared in the French language around 1350. It was used to refer to the action by which friendship is restored between persons that have fallen out. But today the meaning of reconciliation is extremely problematic since it is used in different situations.
Most reconciliation works in the world have been carried out after violence ended. For example, national reconciliation may be needed after an occupying power has been defeated, when part of the population has collaborated with the occupier as was the case in France after World War II. In Argentina after military dictatorship ended, the President appointed the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons in 1983 whose mandate covered the period from 1976 to 1983. In Chile, the President appointed the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in 1990 which was asked to collect all information on political violence from September 11, 1973 to March 11, 1990. In El Salvador, the United Nations appointed the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador in 1992 as a part of the national peace process. The commission was asked to collect data and present truth about violence which took place from January 1980 to July 1991.
The world famous South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by the Parliament to establish truth as the basis of reconciliation in that country in December 1995, was asked to cover data from 1960 up to 1994. In Guatemala, the United Nations which mediated for peace in that country in 1997, set up the Commission for Historical Clarification to collect facts from 1962 until 1990. (Hayner 2002, 262-265) Even in the case of deadly conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Commissions of the Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons which was appointed by the Sri Lankan President in November 1994 had as its mandate to only cover the period from 1987 to 1990. (Hayner 2002, 64-66)
Judging from the above examples, one could argue that reconciliation connotes a process that allows a society to move from a divided past to a shared future. (Hazan 2009: 245) There are three elements in this understanding of reconciliation: that a society is capable of revitalizing itself, that the divisiveness occurred in the past, and that there is such a thing as a shared future.
Reconciliation efforts in Thai society have to confront and perhaps overcome extraordinary problems that it is not the divided past but the divided present that needs to be dealt with.
In addition, there are various obstacles to the revitalizing possibilities since the present deadly conflict has become protracted: the political context is unstable, the conflict issues concern survival and dignity of conflicting parties become non-negotiable, relationships among people are destructive. In short, the whole conflict process has become malignant with traumatic outcomes for all trapped within. In just such a situation, it remains to be seen how a shared future is possible in the context of a house divided.
Put another way, how could Thai society move from a deeply divided present to a “shared” future among people who have grown significantly apart?
Meaningful reconciliation effort in Thai society need to be a process whereby its legitimacy must be thought through from the very beginning. One way to increase its legitimacy is for relevant conflicting parties, the government and the UDD leadership, to apologize to the victims and accept responsibilities for the violence that has left so many dead, wounded, the country’s economic lives wasted, while bitter memories and hatred in society strengthened.
It could begin with the courage to look into the Thai social body stripped bare by the violence, understanding that the difficult task of Thai reconciliation is in dealing with the “divided present”, attempt to foster futures that could be shared by peoples with different understandings of what democracy and justice mean, and a realization that those who try to work for reconciliation are not saviors but people with more or less blood of the April-May 2010 victims on their hands.