They didn’t talk politics. They didn’t even mention reconciliation or amnesty. That’s why it was a highly political meeting. And because it was supposed to be a reconciliatory gesture, the outcome inevitably turned out to be divisive, at least among some red-shirt followers.
Those were not self-contradictory statements. They were facts as viewed from different angles. You could understand the implications of the highly publicised meeting between Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and Privy Council President General Prem Tinlasulanonda last week only through this “prism of paradox”. Or else, you would be caught in a web of total confusion that has haunted many a political observer in this country.
Officially, it was supposed to be just a very ordinary event: the prime minister, being a junior person with national responsibilities, wanted to seek blessings from a senior citizen such as General Prem – and perhaps seek advice on how to make reconciliation work.
General Prem, being a well-respected senior personality, was gracious enough to grant the premier and some of her Cabinet members the opportunity to offer him good wishes for the Thai New Year.
It could have been carried out without much fanfare of course. It could have been a private matter, if paying personal respect was the only item on the agenda. But then, for some reason, unrelated to politics perhaps, the news leaked and the story was played up at least a week in advance.
From Laos a week earlier, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was quoted as saying that he didn’t consider General Prem “a party to the conflict”. If some of the red-shirt leaders didn’t agree with him, they waited a few more days before making their stand clear.
Officially, you are not supposed to link what Thaksin said in Laos to what Yingluck subsequently said or did in Bangkok. But you can’t stop the opposition Democrats spreading the news that the premier was in fact seeking the meeting with the Privy Council president to relay her brother’s apology to the senior statesman.
But that obviously didn’t go down well with at least some red-shirt leaders who had demonstrated openly against General Prem, who had earlier been accused, albeit never directly, of having “influence over and above the constitution”, by none other than the former premier himself.
To me, therefore, what was more important was who wasn’t – rather than who was – present at General Prem’s Sisao residence.
More significantly, what wasn’t said was more important than what was said between the premier and the Privy Council president.
On the record, the highly crucial issues that weren’t raised at all between the two included the question of reconciliation, Thaksin, amnesty, red shirts, yellow shirts and anything remotely related to politics.
Also on the record, the topics that were mentioned during the “Songkran Summit” included how the government can assist with General Prem’s projects to help the southern people. Also, there was the Privy Council president’s request for the premier to “please take care of the people”.
Off the record, it was a 35-minute “four-eyes-only” chit chat between the two. First, Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Yongyuth Vichaidit, who wasn’t in the private discussions, said they hadn’t talked politics. Then, the premier herself confirmed that General Prem had nothing to do with politics – that’s why she had not raised any issue of political substance.
If that’s the case, why then did some red-shirt leaders come out in public to oppose the meeting?
For some hard-core red leaders, even the mere gesture of a social gathering between government leaders and General Prem constitutes a betrayal of the original principle of the red-shirt movement’s anti-elite campaign.
But red-shirt leader Thida Tavornseth, having warned the government on the move, suggested that there must be a clear line drawn between the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt mass movement.
What the line means isn’t clear. Pheu Thai wants Thaksin back home as a free man. That’s why “reconciliation” is important. And that means “reaching some sort of agreement” with those considered to be the main opponents to such a move. But some red-shirt leaders insist that they don’t want amnesty for Thaksin at the price of compromising with the ruling “elite”.
The problem is Pheu Thai is the ruling party, trying desperately to avoid becoming elitist. Somehow, to achieve that, it has to reach some sort of accommodation with the former “elitist” foe.
The first major “reconciliation” effort, it now seems, will have to begin, like charity, at home.