Does airing the truth help in the Thai world?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand report on the 2010 Red Shirt protest deaths released this week laid blame on all sides (as expected) and has already been dismissed (as expected) by all sides.

Its results are likely close to the truth–that the Red Shirts did field a force of “men in black” who used weapons to attack the government in the name of their Thai-style “dissatisfaction.” This indeed was the Red Shirt claim during the protests along with the assertion that resistance to military efforts to break up the protest was coming from soldiers who had switched allegiance to their cause.

Likewise, the report documents that the military did use snipers and live gunfire to clear the protest area and shoot people as they have done so many times during politically turbulent times in Thailand. This is a very Thai response to perceived “stubbornness.” The government and military always knew that the objective of the protests was the immediate collapse of the government to forestall the elevation of Gen. Prayuth to head the military. Once the Red Shirts rejected an offer of their publicly stated goal of early elections, vowing to fight on anyway even though their demands had been met, the Thai establishment would have likely felt justified in using live fire to end the protest.

[2014 note: Gen. Prayuth is part of the Eastern Tigers who Thaksin and the Red Shirts have long reviled. They correctly realized that Gen. Prayuth and his clique would strongly oppose Thaksin using his electoral majority to rewrite the Thai constitution to cement his power and grant himself amnesty.]

The meaning of political violence in a Thai context is that a government that uses force against the people looses legitimacy, steps down, and then all are pardoned. This was the overall game plan of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok and why, even after the 2009 protests when no one died, Thaksin and other Red Shirt leaders still insisted scores must have died. The protests were meant to result in deaths and trigger the sequence of events that would lead to a government stepping aside and a pardon for all (mirroring the 1992 Black May events).

That the Democrat-led government was able to hang on after the bloody events of 2010 broke a precedent. Their obstinacy was fueled by the idea that no disgruntled politician should be allowed to use a rural “mob” (as the Thais call it) to push his way back into power. Bringing rural people to Bangkok to force political change was another longstanding Thai political fear that was realized in both 2009 and 2010. Many politicians from Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to Suthep Thaugsuban had threatened to occupy Bangkok or “set the country on fire,” but Thaksin was the first to make it a reality.

Knowing all this, it is interesting to note that reports that lay blame do not bring the situation no closer to resolution. The open airing of the truth is not a cathartic moment in the Thai context as it would be in the West. Speech here is always carefully moderated so as not to force a person whose feelings are hurt to have to strike back out of Thai “dissatisfaction.”

Whenever one hears Thais (especially politicians like Charlem) pledge that there will be a truth commission where all the facts are revealed, this is not seen as a positive thing, but as a threat. It means if you do not compromise with us the worst thing could happen–the truth will be told and the chips will fall where they may. This is counter to the way the Thai sees the world–with the highest value of carefully considering one’s conduct and speech so as never to impinge on another’s feelings or cause them to lose face.

So despite the publication of this report, there will still be a future reckoning and both sides are preparing themselves for more tricks and more shocks moves coming up.

International news media commenting on the final report from The Truth for Reconciliation Commission [thanks to Tom for pointing these out]:

New York Times: Truth Panel in Thailand Says Conflicts Are Festering
…Sunai Phasuk, a researcher in Thailand with Human Rights Watch, praised the commission’s report as balanced and relying on “neutral evidence and forensic science. “This is the first report in modern Thai political history that investigates violence from all sides,” he said on Thai television…

Wall Street Journal: Thailand’s Lessons From Conflict – Two years on, no one has been held to account for the deadly violence in Bangkok
…At the report’s launch, Red Shirt activists let loose a barrage of questions that were left unanswered at the close of the event. Later, their representatives rejected all the recommendations, saying that the report is biased and doesn’t offer any redress for the killings.
Weng Tojirakarn, a red-shirt leader who is also an MP with the governing Pheu Thai Party, demanded the TRCT provide evidence to support its conclusion that armed “men in black” were present at Bangkok rallies and enjoyed support from his red-shirt group…

Here is an article from international journalists who actually followed the red shirts’ “men in black” around while they were fighting the military: Unmasked: Thailand’s men in black

The findings of The Truth for Reconciliation Commission broadly match the findings of Human Rights Watch: Descent into Chaos – Thailand’s 2010 Red Shirt Protests and the Government Crackdown

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