Non-violence is not simply the absence of physical violence
Many, but especially the organisers of this past Sunday's anti-Thaksin rally at Sanam Luang, are fond of referring to the campaign to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as a "peaceful" and "non-violent" way of demonstrating their frustration with the premier, who is widely perceived to be self-serving and corrupt. But is this true?
The principle of non-violence covers both physical and verbal actions.
Strongly worded criticism of Thaksin and his family is understandable, but the outright vulgarities demonising him at Sanam Luang could not possibly be termed "non-violent expression".
Campaign tools, too - T-shirts, banners, stickers, badges - that were distributed containing hateful and foul language against Thaksin; could these be considered non-violent?
Sanam Luang on Sunday was not the site of a peaceful campaign, as the organisers would have had the public believe. Contrary to its stated mission, representatives of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) themselves seemed to enjoy using verbal violence to stir up hatred.
For example, social critic Sulak Sivaraksa on stage compared Thaksin to a dog that protesters should pity. Speaker Auychai Watha went too far with his show of extremely bad taste. "Whoever cheated [the country], may their children become whores infected with venereal disease!" exclaimed Auychai, who is chairman of a northeastern teachers' group.
On the ground, a group of protesters harassed an iTV journalist reporting from the scene. Was that peaceful expression?
And that was not the first time for journalists to be heckled or threatened with physical harm at an anti-Thaksin demonstration. With the exception of media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul's ASTV, the protesters were repeatedly told that virtually all other electronic media were enemies bent on distorting the news in favour of the Thaksin government. Television networks might be pro-government, but describing working journalists as enemies is far-fetched and simply paranoid.
Many still recall the hate speeches separating "us" and "them" that were the precursor to the violence between right-wing pro-government militiamen and student activists. The students were brutally hunted down and slaughtered in large numbers in the 1976 bloodbath in that very same Sanam Luang and adjacent Thammasat University.
The non-violent movement has been around in Thailand for a long time, but Thai society still seems unfamiliar with the concept. It is shameful that we have failed to learn non-violent discourse with which to interact with others.
The harassment of the iTV news crew is a case in point. Peace advocates and organisers should do more than simply say "sorry". The PAD, as one of the organisers of the demonstration, cannot avoid its responsibility by blaming it on rogue elements bent on discrediting the movement, as it tried to do. Unfortunately, the "Manual for Peaceful Demonstration", hundreds of which had been distributed by Phra Phaisal Visalo and his Buddhika Buddhist Network, went ignored by the emotional demonstrators.
"The Buddhika Buddhist Network set up a booth [on Sunday at Sanam Luang] because we saw a problem," said Phra Phaisal, founder of the Religions for Society Group in 1973, Thailand's first organisation for the promotion of non-violent approaches. At Sunday's demonstration, the network unveiled "Ethics first" as its motto to promote a peaceful demonstration.
The manual listed 10 approaches for peaceful demonstration, including treating everyone politely, even those holding opposite viewpoints. Obviously, not many protesters or organisers - certainly not the speakers up on stage - read the manual, judging by the speakers and the harassment of the iTV crew.
Amnesty International (Thailand) chairwoman Somsri Hananantasuk seems to have been among the few who did read it. She sent an e-mail to PAD members.
"It would be great if demonstration leaders tried to control the speakers' language on stage. The way we've condemned Thaksin and his family has been rather rude. Aueychai Watha words about prostitutes [in regard to Thaksin's daughter] was not proper," she wrote.
"Sulak did not have to compare Thaksin to a dog, and the moderator [Suvit Watnu] should have called for the demonstrators to respect the rights of the iTV reporters, as well as of every member of the pro-Thaksin camp who came to distribute their leaflets. I was saddened to hear the speaker call for Thaksin's execution. I myself am strongly against the death penalty, and this is not funny. We do not support violence, and neither should we foster conditions that would provoke violence."
Respected peace scholar Chaiwat Satha-anan, in praising those struggling for democracy, said courage and hatred were incompatible with each other. He said the mark of non-violence was the courage to defeat fear and hatred in solving a conflict.
The peace scholar said he had followed the anti-Thaksin movement in the news and approved of some of the satire and humour used in speaking out against Thaksin and what he represented.
"A sense of humour is important and a weapon of non-violence, but inciting hatred against others is unacceptable," he said.
Hateful speech that demonises other people limits the effectiveness of a non-violent approach, and it actually sets back freedom of speech, as well.
The PAD has announced its next demonstration to oust Thaksin through what it claims is a non-violent campaign. But the organisation needs to take a deep breath and think about what "non-violence" actually means.