Reconciliation on action replay

26 July 2010

The committees created in the cause of reconciliation have run into a lot of flak. For being too yellow in hue. For proposing to take far too long. For being the wrong solution in the first place. But there is a reason why the government is taking this route. They are following an old script which worked.

The last time that society experienced such division leading to such violence was in 1976. Scores were killed. Hundreds detained. Thousands fled either into the jungles or exile. The feeling that the country was irredeemably divided was not so different from the mood of today. The prospects for restoring any kind of workable harmony seemed hopeless. The country's self-image as a peaceable and progressive nation was in tatters.

Against this background, the National Security Council began a project designed to "create unity between the people in the nation so that people are of one heart". It gathered together groups of advisers including academics, officials, soldiers and jurists. It sent out research teams into the countryside to gauge the mood and canvas opinions.

This working group concluded that the old motto of "nation, religion and King" was no longer "stimulating" for a society that had changed very rapidly in the past two decades. The old motto did not need to be discarded, but had to be adjusted and strengthened. The country needed a new "national identity" that could overcome polarisation, and it needed a new "national ideology" that could compete with the left-wing views of the day.

The revised motto, which emerged after almost three years of research and debate, was "nation, religion, monarchy and democracy with the King as head of state". This was different in two key ways. First, it included the keyword "democracy". For the prior two decades, the army had been in charge for all but a couple of years. People had begun to clamour for democracy, both in the capital and in areas like the Northeast, but the army had always stepped in when politicians showed sign of conflict or corruption. The National Security Council's (NSC) project decided that making democracy work, however flawed, was key to reducing the appeal of more radical agendas such as communism.

The second innovation was the formula, "democracy with the King as head of state". This form of words had been used in some earlier constitutions, but not consistently. Now it became standard. This formula signalled that the monarchy would have a higher profile in public space, and be more closely associated with Parliament.

The NSC team, with help from the Interior Ministry, then drew up action plans for implementing this project. In the late 1970s, the National Culture Commission and the National Identity Office were established. They issued books, published magazines, and broadcast radio and television programmes in line with this new strategy. In the political arena, the generals were persuaded to step back and allow Parliament to operate, albeit with a general as prime minister and more braid in the cabinet. The Interior Ministry launched a campaign of "political education" to teach ordinary people about democracy, the duties of citizenship, and the special nature of "Thai-style democracy".

In 1980 the statue of King Rama VII was installed outside the new Parliament building. Schoolbook history highlighted that Parliamentary democracy had been a gift from the throne. In the same year, the government began to contribute to the royal projects of rural development. In 1982, the bicentenary of Bangkok was celebrated with a glittering royal barge procession, and thereafter almost every year was an occasion for some magnificent celebration involving the royal family. The accomplishments of the royal family, and especially the Monarch's work in development, had an increasingly prominent place in the increasingly popular medium of television.

Neighbouring countries have had similar projects about a national ideology, including Pancasila in Indonesia and Mahathir's campaigns in Malaysia. But the Thai version had a key difference. The national ideology was not a public agenda which people were supposed to understand and embrace. Rather it was something designed behind closed doors, and implemented top-down from the higher levels of the state.

The repression of political activity was not immediately lifted. The Army continued to play a large political role. Vigilante organisations policed the villages. Popular agitation was ruthlessly suppressed. Only gradually was the boot lifted after the new strategy seemed to be working, and after the international collapse of communism contributed hugely to the programme's chances of success.

In retrospect, the architects of this strategy could probably count it a success. For the next thirty years, social tensions were under control. Political crises were all minor. And economic growth tripled average incomes.

There are several key points of this experience: long-range thinking in terms of decades not years or months; working top-down from the background; ambitious re-engineering of major national institutions; a readiness to maintain repressive controls for as long as needed.

Could a similar strategy work today? The easy answer is no. Three things make the task much tougher. First, the extent of polarisation may actually be less today than in 1976, but the rift runs deeper and wider within society. Second, things move much faster in today's era of instant communications. The conciliators cannot take so long. Time alone can help to heal divisions but there will not be that luxury.

Third, international scrutiny now has a large role. After 1976, the US winked at Thai military repression, and no other countries paid much interest. Today, now that Thailand's economy is knitted so intricately with the rest of the world, Thai politics cannot avoid the media spotlight. The Thai elite like to pose as disdainful of external criticism. In truth, they are extremely sensitive.

The fact that today's reconciliation process is happening in the public spotlight rather than behind closed doors is a recognition of these differences. The next crucial test is whether there will be an election before too long. Without that, the project collapses.