May 30, 2012 00:00
By Tulsathit Taptim
To predict the short-term future of Thai politics, you may need to watch free-for-all wrestling at least once.
It’s not pretty – as nasty betrayal, ugly ambushes and unthinkable, constant re-alliance are the name of the game – but that’s the idea. When two camps fight it out, it’s straightforward; when three parties or more are told to do whatever it takes to be the last one standing, fortune no longer favours the brave.
With Thaksin Shinawatra toning down his aggression and sending peace overtures to his “enemies”, some may assume that reconciliation in Thailand might be easier. Others, however, are hearing the bell chiming to start a three-way wrestling match. If this latter group is right, to predict the immediate future of Thai politics, you may want to look at any wrestling ring and its surroundings in the aftermath of such a contest.
If Thaksin doesn’t get cold feet and switch back to his “I will die with the red shirts” belligerence, we will basically have three camps trying to dictate the country’s future on their own terms. The first is Thaksin and the ruling Pheu Thai Party, of course. This group has engineered an “amnesty” plan that, if enforced, would make the past few years seem like they never happened. Everyone would be forgiven – soldiers, yellow shirts, red shirts, Abhisit Vejjajiva, Suthep Thaugsuban and very likely Thaksin himself.
The second camp brings together Thaksin’s hardcore enemies. They can’t let him return home and be a free man. This group’s stance is that Thaksin has not been duely punished for corruption and the 2010 bloodshed that it blames him for. These arch rivals of Thaksin insist that he must go to jail first, and those responsible for the 2010 Ratchaprasong crackdown did nothing wrong and should never be punished.
The last camp is the biggest – the red shirts. Their concept of “victory” and “justice” used to be Thaksin’s absolution, hence his safe return, and the punishment of the Ratchaprasong “murderers”. But since Thaksin has apparently tried to distance himself from them, the red shirts’ goal is changing. To help Thaksin come home may no longer be as important as it once was. In fact, Thaksin’s softened attitude toward “the other side” could galvanise the red shirts’ quest for vengence on those who killed their peers.
There are some overlapping territories, of course. Many red shirts are never-say-die Pheu Thai supporters and they will do whatever Thaksin tells them to. Some anti-Thaksin elements would welcome an all-encompassing amnesty. Some Pheu Thai factions are made up of red hardliners who take the Ratchaprasong “massacre” seriously. These are bit players, however, and they won’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.
Thailand is now a country where “justice” means different things to different people. “Reconciliation” rests on the success in making these people agree on the definition and concept of “justice”. If that was difficult before, when Thailand was divided in an uncomplicated way, it’s much harder now. Come to think of it, the last few years that saw the country so bitterly polarised may in fact be a far simpler political situation.
It was confirmed last week that the government’s reconciliation plan involves a general amnesty. The fiercest opposition to that will come from the red shirts, although a compensation scheme for “victims” of political violence also has begun. The wounds remain too deep on both sides to be healed by an extra budget, high-level peace talks, gestures or Thaksin’s now-infamous begging for his supporters to virtually forgive and forget.
Red-shirted resentment against Thaksin has not yet turned into a wildfire. He and they are still the two biggest wrestlers ganging up against one opponent. The difference between now and before is that neither of the two allied wrestlers can be totally committed to attack without watching his own back. This is, in some ways, like the Democrats-yellow shirt situation before their relationship broke down, although the Thaksin-red shirt bond is far stronger and will take more time if it is to unravel.
If the red shirts’ much-loved leader, Jatuporn Promphan, is put in the Yingluck Cabinet in the next reshuffle, Thaksin may be able to repair some of the damage his latest phone-in caused to the relationship with his supporters.
But that could undo what he meant to achieve by that phone-in in the first place. If this is bad news, the worse news is that the Jatuporn situation is a relatively easy one.
The prime minister can put on hold a Cabinet reshuffle, or make it a minimal exercise focusing on economic fields, which Jatuporn can’t sensibly lay claim to. The same can’t be done for an amnesty plan. With everyone still boiling with desire for vengeance, few would want to be forgiven, let alone to forgive. Thaksin is probably the only exception, but the question is, of the three wrestlers staring at one another in the ring, who’s being eyed with the greatest mistrust?