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Government meddling harms unity efforts

Government meddling harms unity efforts

Published: 14/08/2013 at 12:00 AM

Bangkok Post Newspaper section: News


The tendency of governments to shoot themselves in the foot never ceases to amaze. In Thailand's latest high-profile case of official self-affliction, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra lost the plot when it tried to rope in key domestic power brokers to work on a "political reform council" and invited prominent international figures to promote reconciliation and unity. Conflating these two parallel tracks of reform and compromise has led to controversy and confusion. The best way for the Yingluck government to ensure the utility and effectiveness of these exercises is to get out of the way completely.

In the face of looming anti-government protests, Ms Yingluck issued a plea on Aug 2 urging all sides to come together and work out their differences regardless of their political colour, social status and creed. Thus her "political reform council" was born. It seemed like a genuine call at the time as anti-government demonstrators openly geared up once again to overthrow an elected government midway through its four-year term, this time joined in separate street rallies by supporters of the main opposition Democrat Party.

Ms Yingluck's manoeuvre was clever. While the street demonstrations failed to attract a critical mass, the Yingluck initiative further defused tensions by its quest for an inclusive reform council. Here is where possibly good intentions unmistakably soured.

The government appointed Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Thepkanchana and PM's Office Minister Varathep Rattanakorn as peace envoys to reach out to senior bosses of political parties and seasoned political heavyweights, including anti-government groups and the Democrat Party.

What began as an extension of an olive branch gathered momentum and became a political ruse. Government handlers and insiders must have smelled an opportunity for a broader political offensive. The government went on a full-court press for an inclusive political reform council, trying to rope in top supporters and critics alike. Those who stayed out would appear recalcitrant and uncompromising, bent on conflict and confrontation.

To pile on the pressure, the prime minister then bandied about international big names like former British prime minister Tony Blair, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, and other luminaries with experience in conflict resolution and mitigation. These names were trumpeted as the government's further effort to promote reform and reconciliation, just as Mr Pongthep and Mr Varathep went around Bangkok to drum up support for the domestic political reform council.

To be sure, the plan to invite renowned international practitioners and promoters of peace, reconciliation and conflict resolution was longstanding and preceded the PM's reform council by more than three months. The original plan envisaged cooperation and collaboration between the Foreign Ministry's Devawongse Varopakarn Institute of Foreign Affairs with Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies as third-party organiser. From the outset, these two institutes were supposed to be given functional independence and operational autonomy. The Malay-Muslim insurgency was also initially included in the broader pro-reconciliation talks.

Outside experts detached from the cut-and-thrust of the Thai scene obviously cannot offer a magic wand or panacea for this conflicted and troubled land, but hearing from them about overseas experiences in these areas can help up to a point. Indeed, Thailand can hardly be worse off.

Inevitably, the government wanted to control outcomes. It was not enough to keep what could have otherwise been an instructive lesson for a divided Thailand where partisanship is pervasive and honest brokers can no longer be found. The government effectively dropped the southern insurgency issue and then hijacked the international forum for domestic political gain and gamesmanship. It is now a set-up to contain anti-government columns by putting them all in the prime minister's reform council, reinforced by recognised voices from abroad.

Unsurprisingly, the government's ploy has faced howls of protest and acrimony from opposition groups. The reform council is now a moot point because the Democrat Party has effectively vetoed it. The opposition party's stalwarts are like university debaters on a primary school playground, constantly badgering and unwilling to find any common ground with the government for the common good.

On the other hand, the government has been too narrow-minded and manipulative in peddling these reform and reconciliation proposals. The international forum is now politicised and risks being a rubber stamp for the government's legitimacy and ostensible reconciliation efforts.

As a party to the conflict, the Yingluck government should not be hosting reconciliation forums, domestic and international. To be credible, such forums must be organised by acceptable and fair-minded third parties. That the government has tried to impose ownership and gain credit and "face" for these two forums may have doomed them.

People in government in developing countries where democratic institutions are weak tend to end up being control freaks, overwhelmed by a sense of paranoia and insecurity, afflicted with a bunker mentality. If you are not with them, you must be against them. Such is their thinking. And this condition is not confined to the Yingluck government in light of its predecessors.

If the forum to hear and learn from international experiences is to be salvaged in any respectable fashion, the government will have to stay away while providing complete operational autonomy and functional independence. The more the Yingluck government is involved in talks with the likes of Mr Blair and Mr Annan, the less credibility their comments will carry.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor of International Political Economy and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.


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