I’ve been asked by many, TFF included, to try to explain the problem we face here in Thailand. Let me do this in the order indicated by the headline: The conflicts we face, the prospects for non-violence, for prognosis and for therapy, i.e. possible solutions as I see them at this point, writing on December 2, 2008.
We are faced with at least three major conflicts:
1) Conflict of goals: One side (Red shirt) wants a strong government which could deliver on policy promises; the other side (Yellow shirt) wants a weak government, because they think it is corrupted (Thaksin and his nominees), and therefore what is needed is a strong monitoring measures - hence the conflict between the 1997 constitution (coming out of fighting against a coup for a strong government) and the 2007 constitution (coming out of the Sept.19, 2006 coup for a weak government).
2) Conflict of means: One side (Red) believes that election is the method by which political conflict should be decided; this attitude is democratic and function as their legitimacy basis. The other side (Yellow) believes that the election itself is corrupted by money and by local influence and that democracy does not mean elections only. Therefore, the Yellow does not accept elections as the solution to political crisis, hence its proposal for dissolution of the House and its belief that new elections do not
represent the main way out of the crisis.
3) Conflict of imagination: In the process of confrontation, though claimed to be non-violent, hatred and demonization have been used, weapons have been used, and killings occurred. This has turned ugly because each side, especially the Yellow, accuses those who are not with them as not being Thai but, perhaps, traitors. The Yellow is pushing for the use of the King’s power, or of those close to the monarchy, to intervene in some forms, to put an end to the parliament and come up with a government headed by a "neutral" person, appointed by the King. This, however, is not possible since the present constitution states that the Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Representatives.
Thus, the Yellow have to find a way to amend the constitution but they don't want to do this by the House, controlled by the party that is said to be influenced by former PM Thaksin's nominee(s). The option they seem to push for is the intervention by the military, but the military has already declared insisted that it won't stage a coup and wanted this to end peacefully, perhaps by calling for the dissolution of the House. The Red side dislikes this because they feel that without the House of Representatives on their side in the majority, the legislative power will rest in the hands of the Senate the risk – as seen by them – being that it could decide to amend the constitution for an appointed prime minister.
These conflicts co-exist in the present moment and result in a deeply divided Thai society, to an unprecedented degree, from within families, to working places, public areas, and the media. For instance, I got a note from a former student, my first assistant who used to like me, saying she was disappointed with what I said in public when I refuse to be partial and said something along the line that to practice civil disobedience means that one has to accept the penalty. She said everyone is mad at me, my fellow professors, their wives and many others.
When I go to my usual mosque, sometimes no one wants to talk to me because what I said got criticized by the Yellow (Peoples Alliance for Democracy: PAD). What I had said was that there is no one who is totally evil nor totally good and therefore, the use of violence and killing cannot be justified. PAD/Yellow maintained that in the garden of good and evil, one has to take side. And the Thaksin side has been painted, indeed with a lot of truth, as becoming total evil. The Red, on the other hand, painted the Yellow as an obstacle to democracy and will turn back the clock of this country.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for me is that I do not know what to feel about all this since, as my friend and co-TFF Associate Glenn Paige has rightly put it, all sides claim to use non-violence, including the police and the military, especially at the moment. The Yellow announced from the beginning that their campaign was non-violent and based on civil disobedience. Using immense power, based on popular support, they could take over the government house and now two airports, effectively making the country almost ungovernable. Again, I must emphasize, by means of the immense power of non-violence.
When I called Yellow/PAD's actions non-violent, a lot of people were angry with the PAD and me, because they don't see that occupying the airports and government house could be anything but violent. I said that there is a difference between sending tens of thousands of people, largely bare-handed, to take over these places, and sending in armed group to do the same.
But of course this non-violent action is not totally pure. The group has armed guards and sometimes they attacked the other with clubs and whatever they could find, they even accept donation for golf clubs and were sent hundreds of them! But then there is almost no pure form of non-violent actions, without any weapon whatsoever anywhere.
Given the three mentioned conflicts taking place simultaneously, I would like to introduce two more components that will help us understand the prognosis, namely a) class relations and b) rural-urban backgrounds and perspectives. The Red is made up of rural-lower class, peasants and others who have benefited from the populist policies of the governments. The Yellow is urban-middle class who thoroughly dislikes government corruption and doesn’t need the populist policies but fairer deals in business and economics.
Judging from what has happened, violence has been used by fringe groups associated with both sides and sometimes by the police, while all claiming to be non-violent. It is spreading throughout the country because if one looks at election results, the make up is roughly this: 14-16 million for the government (Thaksin/Red side), 10-12 million for the opposition (Democrat Party/Yellow side). In terms of geographical space, the Red is popular in the North (Thaksin's area) and Northeast (poor and in need of development), while the Yellow is popular in Bangkok and the South (high political awareness and the traditional Democrat's stronghold).
What we are looking at is also local powers on the ground, supporting politicians with their electoral bases. Recently, the government MP (the Red) came out to say that if there was a coup, then each MP will bring 10,000 people from their constituencies to block the road, use the cars to block the tanks, fight against the coup with non-violence…!
The confusing thing is that the Yellow, who claims to use non-violence and have used powerful non-violent actions to make the government ungovernable, is waiting for power outside the democratic process, including a military coup and the King's power to settle the conflict, while the Red who is with the elected government, will be fighting against the coup with non-violent action. They are in support of Thaksin and his nominees whose policies have sunk Thailand deep into the global capitalist system.
What these conditions imply is that violence could spread and civil war is not out of the question. I said on TV this past Saturday that normally what evolves is either conflict between two groups of people and then the state machine intervenes or conflict between two sides of the military and the people intervene, whereas this time people are divided and the state apparatus is also divided, therefore the prognosis is potentially quite dangerous.
There are two levels: political and tactical. Political solutions are difficult and we can assume most proposals would not reach the PAD since their side listens only to their media and leaders. Their position is that the PM has to resign but he does not want to resign, pending the constitutional court case this week. In the past weeks, I have been discussing these with politicians but have not felt very hopeful.
Tactically, we are thinking of how the siege could be lifted non-violently. I have spoken out in favour of the non-violent arrest and a colleague of mine has suggested that when the police comes, the protesters who are now holding the airports should simply sit down and allow themselves to be arrested.
I have just spoken with a coordinator of this and suggested that, to save people’s lives, the arrest must be done in a very public way, including cultural forces (monks, imams, priests, what not), media (foreign and local), lawyers, international witnesses (EU, US embassies, Human Rights Watch, ICJ etc.,) Make this a public event with high levels of participation under the global gaze in order to minimize the potential violence. It must be taken into consideration that we are talking about tens of thousands of people at the airports and number of witnesses and, so, the police will have to be numerous too.
I have been reminded about the Buddhist factor by Glenn Paige and spoke out about it this past Saturday; however, people who rallied at public parks here not succeeded to persuade any monk to come out and join them. I just told my colleagues to try again to beg for arms from both sides, donate arms, declare that one will not use violence as one way of making a tribute to the King's birthday. It would be a wonderful gift to the Monarch we all claim to love.
This is my diary-like report of Thailand in the last days of November. My apologies that it has been so long. We are trying hard to prevent the calamity from taking place. We are trying and will not give up, but God knows what lies ahead.