"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen," said Winston Churchill.
A less glorified wisdom has it that diplomacy is the art of playing nice until you get hold of a knife or a gun. That’s too cynical, maybe, as the craving for peace must be genuine in many circumstances. But has Thailand reached that stage, when warring politicians truly realise that “If I don’t have it, you won’t have it either” will only further damn their souls?
The answer is no. Calls for negotiations are just a game, and both sides of the political conflict still pretty much want to win. As important, signs are that the losers will try their best to drag the other side down with them. Peace talks will only buy somebody some time, whether the negotiations are mediated by the United Nations or Banharn Silapa-archa.
Thailand has too much “standing up and speaking” courage and too little “sitting down and listening” bravery. It’s as simple as that. Yingluck Shinawatra wants to “die defending democracy” and Suthep Thaugsuban wants to protect democracy from her. Do you see how far apart they are? Pessimistically speaking, if millions have died agreeing that God exists but having the relatively tiny difference of whose version of God is better, squabbling Thais do not stand a good chance at all.
That the United Nations is not Thaksin Shinawatra’s father is not a big problem. His infamous statement about the world organisation was, admittedly, uncalled for, but that lapse of political judgement should not be immortalised. We must let him live it down. The real problem is that even if the United Nations was indeed Thaksin’s father, nothing was going to change one bit.
All indicators show Thaksin remains extremely belligerent. As for Suthep Thaugsuban, it’s definitely his turn to say “the UN was not married to my mum”. To sum it up, even if both guys’ real parents or the people they love most were on their knees begging them to stop, they still almost certainly wouldn’t.
Stubbornness of the Thai political rivals aside, the United Nations’ own mediating power is suspect. If the world organisation could not prevent the Iraq war, perhaps we should forget about it being able to sort the “Thaksin system” from “democracy” or vice versa. After all, whether “weapons of mass destruction” existed or not was a far simpler question than whether “the rice pledging scheme is an attempt to buy the poor’s support so a government can cheat”.
Then there is the issue of “stakes” piling up on the card table. It’s not just about Suthep and Yingluck & Thaksin any more. A lot of people have emptied their chip racks and they include the likes of Chalerm Yoobamrung, Surapong Towichukchaikul, the police chief, the DSI chief, the Democrats, film stars, singers, businesses, media outlets, doctors, nurses and top bureaucrats. The judiciary has been deeply involved and the military is sticking out like a sore thumb with the various roles it’s playing.
If not the United Nations, then who? Of course, Ban Ki-moon would be like a befuddled new teacher walking into a kindergarten classroom at its rowdiest, but at least the projectiles would stop flying, wouldn’t they? Here’s the thing: Many people don’t want the projectiles to be relaunched once the teacher leaves, and they don’t trust the UN chief to keep them grounded in his absence.
It’s up to the warring parties, not mediators. More importantly, the warring parties have been breeding followers who already have guns, knives or rocks in their hands. (Some may add bombs if we don’t give the “third party” claims the benefit of the doubt.) The followers can stand up and speak, all right, but will they sit down and listen? Extremely hard as it is for the leaders to begin a real dialogue, making their followers stand down is a lot harder.
Last but not least, real courage is not just about speaking up or listening. It’s about admitting one’s own faults, too. If sitting down and listening is rare in the Thai crisis, admitting guilt is even rarer. One may point at the absolute U-turn of ex-coup maker Sonthi Boonyaratglin, but what he has been showing is not even close to “sincere remorse”.
So, now we know what elements the prospective “peace talks” are missing. We need people with real decision-making powers (not just someone who has to send an SMS every five minutes), who are capable of really listening and truly remorseful about crimes on their sides. If we don’t have this kind of people at the negotiating table, all we will get are talks where everyone says “Nice doggie” while thinking about how he can find a rock thereafter.