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Can there be reconciliation without an admission of guilt?

The idea of national reconciliation is officially front and centre in public debates again. The front-page photographs of public figures of all stripes sitting at tables looking awkwardly serious bear testimony to this renewed effort.

There seems to be a consensus that things have gone awry in Thailand in recent years, but we simply cannot tell who is responsible for the problems.

When I was growing up, my parents made it a golden rule of the household that we must apologise for our mistakes, misconduct and blunders. Not only did we have to apologise, we also had to be able to cite exactly what we did wrong. Many times I attempted to make an empty apology just to get back on the good side of my parents, only to be sent back to the doghouse for failing to elucidate what it was that I did wrong.

I did not know then, until I was old enough to know better, what lesson it was that our parents tried to teach us. A person who apologises voluntarily cannot have an ego that outsizes reality. An apology, more importantly, signifies the courage to own up to our actions. It is about accountability.

An adult life is not as simple. As the "self" gets bigger, the courage seems to diminish proportionally. Men usually know that an admission of guilt does not get them a reduced sentence or simple condemnation from their other half.

In Thailand these days, we have more people in the right than in the wrong, depending on whom you talk to. Unlike in South Africa or Rwanda, where there is deep ethnic acrimony, Thailand has problems with shirt colours and the arbitrary assignment of them to certain groups of people. Elsewhere, the delineation between beneficiaries and perpetrators is quite clear; in Thailand that line is paler than opaque. That makes the admission of guilt and complicity even more problematic. Putting all the wearers of different coloured shirts at the same table, in the same room, is like the hunted and the hunters sharing a cigarette at a moment in time; it leads nowhere in terms of changing the dynamics of our perennial political problems.

Unlike in a country like Japan where an admission of guilt is an honourable thing, here it only magnifies shame.

Enter the word "regret".

The word is used frequently in diplomatic circles. It is an acknowledgement that something has gone wrong, but there is no guilty party, or any admission by any party to that effect. Regret does not entail remorse. In fact, regret indicates the absence of remorse. It is a neat way to have the cake and eat it too.

Admission of guilt or complicity is associated with forgiveness and justice. But these two words are less understood and are more difficult to achieve than an admission of guilt. Can we, or should we, forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness? Can there be reconciliation without justice? Can there be redemption without reconciliation, and vice versa?

Like the question "How to overcome authority without claiming authority?" these dilemmas go in circles and - should there be an end to this spherical line - the sign there says "no exit".

So, for any reconciliation in Thailand to have a chance, it may be time for every party to start thinking anew.

There is no such thing as a perfect solution in which everybody wins. In normal conflict resolution, losers and winners do not end up in the same place. That's why there is hardly any peace that is permanent.

Since there is much duplicity in our national conflicts, admission of guilt does not necessarily entail redemption and forgiveness. If we insist that reconciliation can only happen if, and only if, there is admission of guilt, we may have to wait until we collectively destroy each other completely.

The absence of an admission of guilt does not mean that there is no guilty party. It only means that it's not essential for reconciliation.

If we can find in our heart a place to accept differences in perception, and accept the fact that we each harbour our fair share of bias as well as self-righteousness, we may have less need for genuine apology and admission of guilt from others. If we can accept a minimum degree of self-implication, we may have less need to implicate others. If each of us insists on winning the argument, there is no way to end the argument. If we ask ourselves whether we and our children share the same national fate, and the answer is "yes", then there is no need to tear up the invitation to reconciliation.

There is no handy road map to reconciliation, no fixed formulae. Each and every one of us may have to give up something and give in a bit to get there.

And instead of a mea culpa, we may have to be content with just the word "regret".


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