BANGKOK — Several dozen anti-coup activists, politicians, and academics have been released from a junta-organized forum on reform and reconciliation today.
Most of the people invited to the forum are well-known critics of the military junta, which came to power in the military coup eleven months ago.
One exception was Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, which initially welcomed the coup but has since criticized the junta’s reform process.
Today’s forum was organized by the junta-appointed Center for Reconciliation and Reform (CRR) at the Army Club in Bangkok. Reporters were not allowed inside the venue, and all of the invitees were asked to leave their mobile phones at the door.
Ekachai Chainuvati showing the extra clothes he brought to the Army Club meeting, 23 April 2015.
Some of the attendees, who were invited through hand-delivered letters last night, expressed relief at being released. Ekachai Chainuvati, a law professor at Siam University, showed reporters the pajamas he brought to the meeting, just in case the military decided to detain him and others at army camps.
In the wake of the military coup, the junta summoned and detained hundreds of political figures in army camps for up to seven days of "attitude adjustment."
The first to leave the venue was Natchacha Kongudom, a pro-democracy student activist from Bangkok University. She emerged from Army Club at around 1:40 pm and said she told military officers she had another appointment to attend.
According to Natchacha, the meeting was chaired by army officers who told her and other attendees that the government wanted to hear their opinions to promote reconciliation between Thailand’s divided political factions, which were both staging mass demonstrations in Bangkok prior to the coup. The officers asked the invitees not to tell the media what was discussed at the forum because "they didn't want the issues to lead to conflicts," she said.
Since seizing power, the junta has banned political gatherings and censored the media in order with the stated aim of decreasing political tensions.
Natchaha said she stressed the importance of justice and freedom of expression during the talk.
Soldiers outside of the Army club in Bangkok on 23 April 2015.
Speaking to reporters later in the afternoon, former Pheu Thai Party MP Worachai Hema said both Pheu Thai and Democrat representatives agreed during the conference that the new constitution should "promote reconciliation and reduce conflicts." He also urged the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee to take its time and ensure that the charter will establish a democratic regime.
"Today the conflict is not only about Democrat, Pheu Thai, UDD [Redshirts], and PCAD [Yellowshirts]," Worachai said, naming the rival groups that have been locked in a power struggle for much of the past decade. "The conflict is between conservatives and people who love democracy. We need to find a way for the two groups to walk together. Today, all sides should join hands to solve conflicts in the country. If the NCPO is serious about solving problems, it must submit these opinions to the Constitution Drafting Committee. Otherwise it's useless."
Nattawut Saikua, a core leader of the Redshirt movement, told reporters he spoke about how Thailand’s recent political disputes have been constantly waged by "conservatives and liberals" since democracy was first established in 1932.
"If the same, old problems are not solved, it will keep breeding new combatants. Today, what society needs, and what will lead to reconciliation, is a balance of power so that everyone will be equal under the highest law that is of democratic nature, and is enforced fairly," Nattawut said.
He said he also submitted several other suggestions to the forum, such as providing amnesty and compensation to protesters who were killed, injured, or arrested by security forces in the past decade; a fair, democratic constitution that is accepted by all sides; a fair and transparent election; and resignation of all of the current heads of unelected "watchdog" agencies.
"The security officers promise they will pass my suggestions along to their superior officers," Nattawut said.
Payao Akhard at the Army club in Bangkok on 23 April, 2015.
Payao Akhard, the mother of volunteer nurse killed by soldiers during the military crackdown on Redshirt protests in 2010, was disappointed with the forum, which she felt was focused on a issues concerning politicians and the NCPO.
"They barely touched on issues that matter to the common people," Payao said. "If I had known that it was only for reconciliation between politicians and NCPO, I wouldn't have wasted my time attending the forum."
Payao said she spoke about how both the protest leaders and the military were guilty for the clashes in 2010, which left more than 90 people dead, including her daughter, Kamolkate Akhard. Although most of the casualties were civilians believed to have been killed by security officers, a number of soldiers were also slain by armed militants allied to the Redshirt protesters.
"To build reconciliation, they should look to the people first. The army and all the protest leaders should have a conscience and apologize to the people first. But in the past, it seems that the army didn't care about this at all. So, to conclude, the forum today didn't have anything that satisfied me at all. I was even wondering, how can there be a reconciliation, when all I sat through was politicians talking to each other?" Payao said.
The junta has promised to hold elections early next year after a new constitution has been finalized, provided that the political situation is deemed "stable."