Is escalating violence against protesters a tactical move by govt?

opinion February 27, 2014 00:00

By Pornpimol Kanchanalak

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The caretaker government has been losing ground, not to mention legitimacy. With one miscalculated move after another, it has become failed government dragging Thailand into a failed-state condition.

“Sinning is … a deviation from that rectitude which an act ought to have,” said 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. The rectitude of a government’s acts lie in upholding the public interest, a significant part of which is to safeguard the wellbeing of the people and secure peace in society. On both counts, our government has failed. Young children, innocent bystanders and unarmed protesters who are exercising their right of free speech, have paid for that failure with their lives.

The government’s rice pledge scheme has destroyed the market mechanism for this commodity. Thai rice has rapidly lost its global market share because of the government’s intervention, and many farmers now find themselves worse off due to this quick-fix scheme.  Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman said a government had failed when its solution to a problem was as bad as the problem, or made the problem worse. If the world is looking for a grand example of such a failure of a government, it need look no further than Thailand.

The ridiculous beating of war drums by red-shirt leader Thida Tavornses, along with some utterly revolting hate speech by other leaders of the government’s hired hands that bordered on sedition, have been met with absolute silence on the part of our caretaker administration.  The proposed plan to divide the country along the political fault lines – to remove the North and Northeast from the control of central government – was a pronouncement of secession, an offence punishable in the highest degree. And once again, we witnessed a response of silence from the government. In fact, one Cabinet member, the Interior Minister, seemed to give the notion the government’s seal of approval.

It is now clear that the government’s days are numbered, even if it is holding steadfastly to the motto “those who are shameless get what they want”. 

The events of the last seven days indicate that the government is intentionally sanctioning escalating violence in order to enhance its leverage at the negotiating table.

It is said that the way in which events unfold on the battlefield can influence any future mediation.  Maybe that’s why we are hearing red-shirt war drums and witnessing bombings by anonymous militias on a daily basis. The threat by government supporters to attack independent organisations such as human rights groups and the courts if they do not come down in the government’s favour can be perceived as a tactic to force groups on both sides of the political divide to the negotiating table. 

So far, the PDRC’s determined action in extending the political protests beyond a logical endpoint has rendered ineffectual the government’s belligerent strategy to dictate the terms of conflict settlement. The political battle in Thailand is entering into a so-called “hurting stalemate”, where both sides are hurting, which is at the height of the geometric asymptote curve, a function of time and intensity of a conflict. In most cases, the hurting stalemate is followed by a de-escalation of conflict or negotiation that might lead to a dispute settlement.

The cost of continued fighting and the willingness to make concessions are two determinants of what the final resolution will look like. The principles of Equifinality, where the same outcome can be derived from many predictors and factors, and Multifinality, where one factor can lead to many different outcomes, will apply in the sensitive process of domestic political settlement in our country at a time when senseless divisiveness has been allowed, and even endorsed, for several years now.

In the meantime, our caretaker leader appears to be going through the classic model of five stages of grief.  First, she was in denial, refusing to acknowledge the reality of the failure of her administration. Then she went to anger, lashing out at her opposition, sometimes in tears, while her deputies tried to squash them with any means available to them.  Now, she is in the third stage – signalling the “willingness” to have a dialogue, as the tactics of her team began to boomerang.  That leaves two other stages left, namely depression, which she may already have entered, and finally acceptance. Many are hoping that she moves quickly to the fifth stage, before she takes the country into Ukrainian-style political turbulence.

In any negotiation, the parties to the conflict naturally must try their best to maximise their BATNA – the best alternative to negotiated agreement. However, if one party has a great BATNA, and the others is dreadful, it’s not really negotiation.  It’s called trying to get a little something extra.

The government is not doing itself any favours by maximising its leverage and BATNA by escalating the threat and action of widespread armed violence by its supporters.  By “framing” and demonising neutral independent organisations and judicial institutions, the government is throwing away the bargaining chip of legitimacy it thinks it has. 

In the final analysis, the fact of winning a concession may prove to matter more than the substance of that concession. And it may not be who yields most, but who yields last, which determines a perceived winner.  To the government, “face” may also prove to be an important a factor in the game of political gains. But one has to try to remember an important fact of life: one may not be able to save “face” and behind at the same time.