Views by Thai NGOs on the Political Situation in Thailand

The red shirt barricades in Bangkok on 13 May 2010. Photo: Takeaway. License: Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.

June 2, 2010
By Wanun Permpibul and Jost Pachaly

By Wanun Permpibul and Jost Pachaly

The violent conflict in Thailand’s capital Bangkok between the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) - also referred to as the Red Shirts - and the government ended on May 19 with a military operation and the surrender by the leaders of the movement. During this two-month conflict more than 80 people died, hundreds were injured and the majority of the victims were civilians.

While the national and international media focused on reporting on the views and statements of the two conflicting parties, the role of the Thai NGOs was widely neglected although they played a very active role throughout the conflict by presenting their views to the public and issuing statements proposing solutions to the conflict.

Thai NGO networks

This article summarizes the views on the political situation by two of the main NGO networks of Thailand, which have been actively involved in the political debates in the Thai society. The Coordination Network of NGOs (NGO-COD) is a nationwide network representing a number of development related NGOs and the Anti Civil War Network is a network of a number of NGOs recently getting together to provide solutions on the political crisis. The Anti Civil War Network includes the Peaceful Solution Network, AIDS Infectious Network, For Consumers Network, Alternative Agriculture Network, FTA Watch, etc.

Both networks support the idea of using protests and demonstration as a means of political action but believe in the peaceful conflict resolution. The people must have the right and freedom to express their political opinions but in a peaceful way. Protests and demonstrations are seen by the NGO Networks as important democratic tools to bring attention to public needs which otherwise would be ignored by the relevant stakeholders in the society.

Democratic tools

Lessons and experiences from the past have shown that people’s needs have not been well responded by the government only through discussions, debates, submission of pledges, etc. However, it is of utmost importance that demonstrations and protests are peaceful and no attempts are made that lead to violence. According to the NGO Networks, violence and suppression are no option and will never solve the problems that have been rooted in the society for several years.

Furthermore, the protest leaders must be well represented, be highly responsible and have the capacity to really “lead” those assembling. In this particular political conflict in Thailand, on many occasions the leaders were not able to control the situation which led to further violence and suppression from the army and government.

Peaceful means of conflict resolution

The NGOs have a very critical stand against the government’s responses and actions against the political protest. Both networks - together with others in society - have been calling upon the government to exercise peaceful means of conflict resolution. They proposed negotiations as a means to come up with a compromise and solutions that are acceptable to all. The failure of negotiations between the government and the Red Shirt leaders and the rejection of the reconciliation plan announced by the Prime Minister eventually led to suppression and violence over the protesters and the army taking control of the situation under what was called “narrowing down the protesting sites”.

Both the Anti Civil War Network and NGO-COD did not agree with the government’s violent suppression and suppression of the protesters. In their opinion the government should have been more patient and even more tolerant than others in society since it is the controlling power and can exercise power for the better or the worse. The government should have ensured that the situation was not unfairly exploited by the government agencies involved and that violence of any form was not encouraged. According to the Networks, there would have been a number of means and measures the government could have explored and used, in order to end the conflict in a peaceful manner.

Particularly the failure of the government’s five-step reconciliation plan was regarded by NGO-COD as severe and a critical event in Thai history.

A spiral of violence

The consequences, in terms of loss of lives, injuries and feelings of hatred, have shown the cruelty of the government and the leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) who have fought for their political gains at the expense of fellow human-beings. Despite the availability of alternative means and opportunities to get out of the spiral of violence and back to the negotiating table at any times during the past two months, they choose confrontation. The Anti War Network also shared the same view and commented that the increasing demands from supporters of each side, to quickly put an end to the situation, have largely contributed to the severity and violence. The government then should have been more patient and tolerant and should not have accepted such demands to justify their violent actions.

Violence, suppression of dissent, and the violation of peoples' civil and political rights, including coup d’etats, can not resolve conflicts that have gripped Thai society for years. The use of weapons of war, whether by the government or by all other parties was unequivocally condemned by both networks and other NGOs like Focus on the Global South. Both have demanded that the government take full responsibility for the deaths and injuries that ensued. At the time of conflict, civil society members repeatedly demanded that the Thai government immediately stop exercising violence and firing at people and pull back all of its armed personnel from the conflict zones, unconditionally.

Enhance the reform of Thai society

According to the networks, all the parties involved in causing deaths and injuries in the past two months must take responsibility for their actions and submit themselves equally to the judicial processes. Additionally all sectors in the society together should seriously and continuously investigate and monitor the violence in order to enhance the reform of Thai society, to solve injustice related problems and to bring about economic, social and political equity in peaceful and democratic ways. Some NGOs demand that the government and UDD accept the presence of national-international human rights monitors to monitor the peaceful resolution of the current conflicts. Political differences should not be used by any side to foment hatred and both the Thai government and all members of Thai society must commit to peace and equity as non-negotiable principles in the resolution of all conflicts.

The civil society organizations are now calling upon all sides to get back to the negotiating table. Both, the government and the UDD, have to return to the negotiation process with full commitment to serving the interests of all in Thai society, rather than selected factions or groups. Negotiation can happen at any point of time. All parties must be included in the negotiation process. Particularly, the UDD must come up with publicly known representatives, who are accepted by the majority of its supporters. Issues to be discussed have to be decided and agreed upon among those involved in the negotiation process.

The negotiaton process

It was advised that the negotiations could start with common interests that could be agreed upon and accepted, to encourage further negotiations. Other more crucial topics like political reforms, redrafting of the constitution, the role of political parties, etc., could be raised later. NGO-COD also sees the need to follow at least the government’s reconciliation plan. Additionally, they – along with other NGOs - proposed that the government dissolves the parliament and call for fresh elections in November 2010. An independent committee should be established to investigate the violence and losses as a result of political conflicts in order to find the politically and legally responsible persons.

In the opinion of the NGO Networks the recent political conflict is rooted in the long history of injustice in Thai society. Particularly, the supporters of the UDD – mainly rural poor – have experienced hardship and injustice under most governments in the past. Their rights have been limited and ripped off, while double standards are being exercised. This led a number of civil society activists to call for national reforms. These reforms should include the political system (constitution, elections laws, political parties, etc.), rights to access to natural resources, rights to participation, access to the justice system, income distribution, etc. It would be a long term process but the current political situation could be used as a momentum to start the needed debates and discussion.

The role of the media

Media would also play a significant role in contributing to the whole reform. They should disseminate facts to the public at large without any prejudice and comments, unless their origin is clearly stated.

As far as the role of NGOs is concerned, they need to pursue a balanced approach. NGOs have different views on the political reform process: some developed very strong positions while others are more on a compromising stance. The Anti Civil War network suggests that NGOs should not take side but should rather stick to issues and make them understood in the society.