Attacking One Another Probably Not Best Way for Dissidents to Fight Junta

Disorganized opposition shows it can also be allergic to dissent

Referendum boycott advocate Jittra Cotchadet, at right, sits with human rights lawyer and Vote No-er Arnon Nampa in a photo taken earlier this month. Photo: Jittra Cotchadet / Facebook

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Even among those who profess to be for democracy, disagreeing without insult is difficult.

Those planning to boycott the August charter referendum have been accused by fellow anti-juntanites and Vote No-ers of being paid junta shills or armchair democracy warriors.

In return, those vowing to vote in the negative to register their disapproval of both the controversial draft charter and its junta patrons have been derided as “backup dancers to the military regime.”

All say they’re for democracy. All say they’re against the junta. Now there’s bad blood between some simply because they can’t agree on the best way to register their opposition.

Pravit RojanaphrukForget about the ultra-nationalist junta-supporters who brand anyone engaging with foreign states and embassies a traitor. The fact that some of those who claim to be for democracy can’t respectfully agree to disagree without vilifying the others says a lot about how far many Thais have to go before being able to handle and tolerate differing opinions.

The latest debacle among the pro-democracy opposition shows some are not immune to the malaise affecting the junta’s faithful. As the verbal rumble worsened over the past 10 days, exiled anti-junta academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who wishes he could return to Thailand to vote no without being arrested, called Tuesday for a truce. Via Facebook, Pavin urged both sides to stop insulting one another.

“Deriding one another: This is useless,” Pavin wrote.

The pettiness and narrow-mindedness of the catfight aside, the emotional debate as to what to do with the draft charter reflects the fact that sometimes there are no perfect solutions. The argument also begs the question of when realism gives way to nihilism.

Those vowing to vote No say doing so is the only realistic option to register people’s opposition to not just the charter draft but the military dictatorship which sponsored it.

The problem is that two months before the poll, the junta still hasn’t told the public what will happen if the charter goes down Aug. 7. That means the situation could get worse. But those voting No seek to undermine the junta’s legitimacy and believe overwhelming rejection of the charter would serve as de facto rejection of military rule.

Those insisting on boycotting the plebiscite say it’s the only morally defensible position. They want nothing to do with an illegitimate regime and its processes and therefore argue that participating in the vote is tantamount to accepting its authority.

The problem with the latter group’s thinking is that it’s mostly symbolic and unlikely to produce a measurable effect. Its supporters are likely to be subsumed into the larger contingent of those who simply don’t vote, unless they are public figures, risk publicly declaring themselves abstainers, or take to the streets Aug. 7 in a display of defiance, as suggested by junta critic Wad Rawee.

Jittra Cotchadet, a prominent labor activist and advocate for boycotting the referendum, said the invective and nastiness has been blown out of proportion.

The damage has been done, however.

In politics as in life, there are no perfect solutions. Less-than-perfect options with a perfect willingness to embrace situational complexity may be the best we can hope for. And you don’t need to hate those who share the same objective but disagree on how to get there.