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Thai Military Seeks Political Reconciliation Ahead of National Elections

  • Ron Corben

Portraits of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej are displayed at a department store in central Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 17, 2017.

The Thai military government is making a new bid at political reconciliation ahead of general elections likely in 2018.

The latest effort to advance “the road map to democracy” through cross-party talks is being led by Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuan.

Prawit said the aim is to establish among the divided parties common ground and solicit ideas on a range of issues, including politics, social development, the environment, foreign affairs and mass media.

A political adviser to Prawit, Panitan Wattanaygorn, said the military is seeking a smooth transition of power back to a civilian administration.

National reforms proposed

The new initiative is part of national reforms the military sees as key, with the government setting up four committees geared to helping the steps along the political roadmap.

Panitan said the government wants to listen to politicians’ concerns and register their ideas in the process.

“Some public contract could be constructed, but we’re not going to force anyone to sign anything if they don’t want to and certainly making peace and reconciliation cannot be forced,” Panitan said, adding progress will rest in the future elected government.

A military-backed constitution, passed in an August referendum, provides added powers to the military in a future elected government, especially through an appointed 250-member Senate.

New king

Analysts say Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, may also be an influence in the process after the 70-year reign of his father, Bhumipol Adulyadej, who passed away in October.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, in a commentary in the Singapore-based Straits Times, said the new king’s reign “will likely spell changes to Thailand’s political configurations and dynamics.”

“The reign may also bring about a more level-playing field in Thai politics in the near term,” Thitinan said.

As Crown Prince, Vajiralongkorn had close ties with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in exile after fleeing the country in 2008 following corruption charges.

FILE - Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra speaks to Reuters during an interview in Singapore, Feb. 23, 2016.
FILE - Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra speaks to Reuters during an interview in Singapore, Feb. 23, 2016.

Thaksin’s political parties, including Pheu Thai, succeeded at several general elections since 2006 despite efforts by the military to promote the pro-establishment Democrat Party.

In Thailand’s color-coded politics, “red shirt” supporters came under pro-Thaksin United Democratic Front for Democracy (UDD), with “yellow shirts” linked to the urban middle class Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

But PDRC spokesman Akanat Promphan said the process must be genuine, promoting the rule of law and economic opportunity to succeed in the long term.

“If you do [promote the rule of law and economic opportunity] in the end that’s what will bring unity back to our society, not just a superficial process of reconciliation where different groups come and sit in the same table for photo opportunities,” Akanat said.

Return to normal

Kraisak Choonhavan, a Democrat Party member, said members from the major parties have been in informal talks for some time.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that our national reconciliation is a prerequisite towards normalcy in politics in Thailand, a return towards elections and parliamentary rule,” Kraisak told VOA.

But the new draft constitution makes “a return to normalcy very difficult.”

The military-backed draft, now with the king pending amendments, calls for a 250-member appointed Senate and a 500-member House of Representatives. The draft allows the Senate to vote in the selection of a prime minister, leaving the way open for a non-elected government leader.

Bipartisan efforts undermined

Kraisak said the current constitution, with the 250-member non-elected Senate, undermines the current bipartisan efforts at reconciliation.

“So even if we have a national reconciliation politically, the present constitution has thrown us into a maze of conflict in the future,” he said.

“It’s too late you see because the military, the junta, claim that they have national consensus through the non-transparent referendum that they made,” he said.

FILE - Thai Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, left, speaks during a joint news conference with William Monson, an American businessman at parliament house in Bangkok, Thailand, May 3, 2006. Monson said he has filed criminal charges against outgoing Prime Minister Thaksin Shanawatra.
FILE - Thai Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, left, speaks during a joint news conference with William Monson, an American businessman at parliament house in Bangkok, Thailand, May 3, 2006. Monson said he has filed criminal charges against outgoing Prime Minister Thaksin Shanawatra.

A senior member of the Pheu Thai Party, Somarn Lertwongrath, expressed doubts about the military’s reconciliation policy, despite both major political parties agreeing to reconcile.

“If the military regime really wants reconciliation it can be done. But I don’t think they are ready to reconcile at all. They don’t have any preparations [for it],” Somarn said.

“The military try to keep everything under their power — they will not reconcile with the political parties, that’s the problem. I only hope that the military understands the fact that they are losing, they are not winning,” he added.

There have been calls for reconciliation throughout Thailand’s turbulent political history. But few of the recommendations have been taken up by authorities.

Political scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, Titipol Phakdeewanich, said despite calls for reconciliation, the people in the northeast, largely backers of Pheu Thai, “still don’t trust the military” amid a climate of tight control over political debate.

“When we look at reconciliation, then the best way to reconcile the country is to go back to democracy and return power to the people and set the rules of law and accept the result of the election — that would be the best way to actually help the reconciliation,” Titipol said.

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