Reconciliation must be at the top of national agenda

opinion May 29, 2014 00:00

By Pornpimol Kanchanalak

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Thailand has been through the most divisive time in her modern history. Politically and economically, the country has been a train wreck. Anger, hatred and distrust between people, as well as radicalised politics, have ruled the day.

Without pointing fingers, the country, collectively, needs healing.  And starting the process of national reconciliation can’t come soon enough.
But what exactly does “national reconciliation” involve?  
Many theorists argue that there is a common denominator in all reconciliation, regardless of the kind of conflicts and the level of their intensity. Others contend the reconciliation process differs according to the context. Some say it is merely a means to an end, which is peace; others insist it is an end in itself, the finish line.
But just like other big words, such as “love” and “life”, the fact that we cannot agree on its exact definition or methodology does not diminish the vital role that national reconciliation plays in putting a country back together, in unity and peacefully, so the nation becomes whole again.
National reconciliation can be a vague and messy process. There are at least three factors necessary to restoring an understanding between former enemies. First is the “personal” variable, namely legitimate leaderships that favour a greater sense of mutual understanding and a progressive trust between the conflicting parties. This element must also includes the good faith and willingness of the opposing factions to come to the negotiating table. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood of Mohamed Morsi totally rejected calls for national reconciliation by military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – the coup leader who overthrew Morsi’s regime in the wake of mass protests in the summer of 2013. On Monday, Egypt, still a very much-divided nation, went to the polls to elect El-Sisi as president without the support of Muslim Brotherhood voters.
A contrasting case is South Africa. Despite their fraught relationship, former president FW de Klerk and his successor Nelson Mandela worked together and accomplished a political miracle, evading a civil war and transforming their country into a multiracial democracy. De Klerk and Mandela never liked or trusted each other. The deep-rooted acrimony between them threatened to derail negotiations on many occasions. However, both managed to put aside their mutual resentment at critical moments, and brought the national reconciliation process to fruition. Mandela’s personal touch, no matter how symbolic, and his wisdom, prompted de Klerk to hail him as a great unifier.
For Thailand’s national reckoning to be possible Thaksin Shinawatra will have to be part of the solution, no matter how many people revile him for the wrongs that he and his people inflicted on the land of their birth.
The second necessary factor is robust social and government institutions that allow for greater participation of the population.  Without these, official reconciliatory efforts will be rendered sterile and useless. The divisiveness in Thailand has been allowed to fester, and the fires of animosity fanned for so long, that the hearts and minds of the disenchanted have to be won back through their voluntary decision. This does not mean they should not be encouraged to see the merit of a return to unity and internal amity. It means that there must be the vehicles that can carry the reconciliation wagon to its destination of concord, which means a state of inclusive harmony.
The third factor is timing – the ripeness of the situation in which the protagonists are ready for reconciliatory efforts. Currently, the military has the momentum, and the ousted regime and its de facto leader are playing a losing hand. A small window of opportunity as opened for a peace initiative. MR Kasemsamosorn Kasemsri, a “wise man of Siam”, once said: If you chase a pig into the wild, it may come out a wild boar and create far more havoc than it would have done otherwise – a sentiment echoed in the Western media’s predictions of bloodshed for Thailand.
World history has been witness to occasions when even the bitterest enemies have been able to break bread together to allow the peace process to begin.
When the American Civil War ended, with more than a million casualties (3 per cent of the population), on the day of surrender, General Josiah Chamberlain brought the Union army to full salute in recognition of the valour of the defeated Confederate soldiers.  Chamberlain’s order was the first act in a national reconciliation and healing process that took more than 20 years to complete.  Now, the US Memorial Weekend commemorates the sacrifices of both the Union and Confederate armies, despite the fact that the latter fought for a wrongheaded cause.
On the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, where more than 1 million people were murdered in savage acts of ethnic violence, Pope Francis spoke about forgiveness for the atrocities that all sides committed. He reminded the world that the path to national peace was long and required patience, mutual respect and dialogue.
In Thailand, His Majesty the King has by his actions shown us time and again the power of magnanimity. It is high time we tried to follow in his footsteps. For that path is the only way out of our sorry state of internal division, the only road towards national salvation.