Repression is not a recipe for reconciliation.
Last night, the leader of Thailand’s military junta announced that elections will not be held for at least another year. Until then, the first item on the military’s agenda is achieving “national reconciliation.”
The military is correct to note that Thailand’s society has become deeply divided in recent years. Some say the chasm is wider than ever before. Yet, the coup-makers are dangerously wrong to believe that several months of military propaganda is the antidote to Thailand’s political crisis.
Coup-leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has not spelled out exactly what the next several months of national reconciliation will look like. But based on the past week, we have a pretty good idea.
Since seizing power on 22 May, the military has sought to silence anyone who is vocal about their political views. Hundreds of politicians, activists, and academics have been detained. The military says the goal is to give them time to “cool off.” Most detainees have been released, but all on the condition that they cannot participate in any political activities.
The military has also shut down politically-affiliated news outlets, blocked hundreds of websites, and forbid public demonstrations. Everyone in society has been warned against making any public comments, including anything posted on social media, which undermine the military’s mission.
The military appears to believe that if it can just get everyone to stop talking about their political differences, people will forget they have them. This couldn’t be more wrong.
The political issues that have driven Thais apart are real, and they will not magically disappear just because people are forbidden from discussing them. If anything, banning public dialogue will likely radicalize dissidents and widen the divide.
If the military continues on this course, Thailand’s political conflict may be temporarily shelved, but it will almost certainly come back to haunt the country in an even stronger and more militant form.
Furthermore, the military will never unify Thais as long the coup-makers unabashedly favor one side of the political divide.
Last night, Gen. Prayuth revealed that the military’s “roadmap” for Thailand is identical to what the leader of the anti-government movement, Suthep Thaugsuban, was fighting for all along: reform before elections.
History tells us that these reforms will likely be aimed at making Thailand’s electoral process less democratic, in an effort to marginalize the influence of the largely rural masses whose votes have determined the winner of every election since 2001.
As long as the junta pursues the platform of the former anti-government protesters, national reconciliation will never be achieved. It is impossible to create unity by imposing the self-serving program of an elite minority on the rest of the country.
The only way to achieve true reconciliation is to treat both sides of the conflict equally. In political terms, this means allowing Thais to solve their differences through the ballot box.
We urge the military to lift its ban on political expression and organize elections as soon as possible. That way, all Thais can play a role in the reconciliation process.
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