BANGKOK – A few days ago, I returned from a month of travelling to find everyone talking about reconciliation.
It is today’s buzz word, and the region’s leaders all claim they want to resolve social conflicts by reconciling opposing sides.
It’s a no-brainer even for politicians, but let us be tolerant and hope they are sincere – and that it works.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva sent an envoy to Washington to explain his plan to get Red Shirts, Yellow Shirts and everyone in between to stop fighting and start cooperating for the national good.
The envoy did a fine job, and the US house of representatives voted 411-4 to support the reconciliation road map.
Days later, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s lawyer, Noppadon Pattama, jetted to Washington to endorse the same message.
Fine and dandy. But it was left to Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra to urge that the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra should be included in the healing process.
Otherwise, said Sukhumbhand, “I’m not certain the government can succeed with reconciliation because society is so deeply divided.”
Indeed, it remains so divided that Abhisit has extended a state of emergency, and his army chief has put troops on high alert for an upcoming Bangkok by-election.
More farsighted steps must be taken, the kind that have been used successfully in the region under even more dramatic circumstances, as I was reminded last week when viewing the film Balibo.
Set during the 1975 invasion of East Timor by Indonesia, the film focuses on the murder of five Australian journalists in the small town of Balibo.
More heart-rending is the way it reminds us that 200,000 Timorese perished in that invasion – a higher proportion of the population than was killed in Cambodia by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
Today, however, there has been an astonishing reconciliation between East Timor, which finally gained independence in 2002, and its giant neighbour Indonesia.
The same has happened in Indonesia’s other provinces, Aceh, Maluku and Sulawesi.
Earlier this year in Jakarta, former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, the initiator of reconciliation in these conflicts, told me about the difficult but unavoidable steps that had to be taken.
First, the government apologised for the brutal acts committed by the Indonesian military. Then it revoked the military emergency status. Finally, it granted full autonomy to Aceh.
The result was true reconciliation – and peace.
As the International Crisis Group said in a report last week, these are the kind of bold steps that Thailand must take.
Said the ICG’s Jim Della-Giacoma: “The first gesture that might demonstrate a renewed commitment to building bridges would be to unconditionally and immediately lift the state of emergency.”
He added that seeking reconciliation when the Red Shirt supporters “are on the run and denied their political rights is impossible”.
He is right.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times. He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.