The military junta is pushing ahead with its reconciliation project, perhaps the highest item on its agenda. But it's going to be much more challenging than just getting people to sit down to talk nicely to one another.
The National Council for Peace and Order (PCPO) has also promised to come up with an interim charter, a National Assembly and a Reform Council in the next few weeks as part of the three-step roadmap before a general election is held. The loose timeline is a 15-month period of preparation before returning the country to “normalcy”.
But there is no guarantee that the timeframe will be kept or that it is iron-clad. Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has made it clear that the deadline can only be kept if “peace and order” are restored.
But then, there is also the pressure from both the domestic and international scenes for the junta to return the country to civilian rule as soon as possible. Prayuth will need to juggle these two demands effectively if he is to make good on his pledge that he staged the May 22 coup not to stay in power but to put the country back on a democratic track.
The reconciliation plan is being carried out mainly by military personnel who are more accustomed to “psychological warfare” than bridging political differences. But if it fails to genuinely embrace civil society and local leaders at the grass-roots level, the exercise will be no more than theatrical spectacle for the local communities, never touching on the most serious issue of the day: How do we heal the deep wounds of mistrust created by years of hate speech and fact-bending campaigns on both sides of the political fence?
Previous attempts at “reconciliation” failed badly for one very simple and obvious reason: The powers-that-be only paid lip service to ending the hostility between the two factions. Forums set up to “get people to talk peace together” were nothing more than a publicity stunt that, in fact, was aimed at keeping the pro-government elements in control of all aspects of political and social life.
The latest military-led version has tried to create what it calls “an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation”, which may be a positive beginning. But the crux of the issue is how to bring about “confidence-building” in a substantive way.
Confidence-building cannot be a top-down process. Nor can the junta order former foes to suddenly forget the past and embrace one another with mutual trust. Only real actions that reflect non-partisan and positive attitudes can draw people together.
In a way, the “trust divide” among the general public wasn’t really about ideological differences. Nor was the “hatred” between the two sides the result of any serious conflict. It was politicians who were mostly responsible for creating the distrust among the people, with one side backing former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the other strongly opposing him.
The animosity was fuelled not by political ideology but mostly by the dangerous attempt to draw the line between those in power and those in opposition. Political divisiveness was intensified by the pro-Thaksin faction, to defend his actions at all cost – even to the point of trying to issue an amnesty to cover all past corrupt political practices. Those in opposition were then pushed to the point of coming out on the streets to demand an end to Thaksin and his family’s involvement in politics.
General Prayuth claims that he staged the coup because the country was in danger of becoming a “failed state” and that his efforts to get the political enemies to strike a compromise fell on deaf ears.
If national reconciliation is the real goal, it will take more than a military-directed operation to put the country’s conflict behind us. All stakeholders must be brought into the reconciliation process and divergent views must be accommodated to reach a consensus on how to proceed.
The composition of the interim national assembly and the content of the revised Constitution as well as the reform process must all reflect the common goal of healing the country’s deep wounds.
The coup itself could be seen as divisive. That’s why a clear commitment to return the power to the people and the democratic process must be an integral part of the national reconciliation agenda.