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Repeating an empty slogan

Repeating an empty slogan

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A supporter of deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra protests in Bangkok in December 2008.

Red Shirt demonstrations over controversial land deals reveal a national affinity for the ‘double standard’ refrain in politics.

NO other words seem to prick the easily excitable hearts of Thai protesters and their belligerent ringleaders more sharply than this coinage, always recited in its foreign form: “double standard”. These past few years, the phrase has morphed from a foreign term scarcely used or understood here, to one of the most commonly heard and effective marching orders. When someone – of whichever coloured camp – shouts “Double standard!” the rest of the column becomes instantly roused and willing to go to any lengths to rectify that injustice, inequality, indiscretion – all the myriad things that are less than fair in this country – in their own way and, well, by their own standards!

Though there is no doubt the phrase has caught on with the protesting crowds, I wonder what the practical use will be of its constant recitation and regular usage as a pretext to protest.

On Monday, members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) went one step further and unfurled a red banner reading “Village of Double Standards” at Khao Yai Thiang, Nakhon Ratchasima. Their target was a 14-rai (about 2.25-hectare) property owned by former prime minister and Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont. The UDD protesters said they were making a point against what they perceived as the government’s (and judiciary’s) “double standards” in dealing with forest encroachers. Whereas some villagers who occupied forest reserve land on the mountain have been sued for encroachment, General Surayud, who bought, and thus occupied, a piece of land there that technically couldn’t be sold, was asked only to return the land without facing prosecution.

The office of the attorney general ruled that Surayud and the man who sold the plot to him did not have to face punishment because they only violated a cabinet resolution that allowed landless farmers to use forest reserve land for farming, without the right to sell it to other people.

The devil, they say, is in the details, and I think the same applies to the practice of double standards. The UDD did not answer the following question: Did the villagers they upheld as committing the same mistake as Surayud purchase the land that technically can’t be bought on Khao Yai
Thiang? Or did they simply occupy land that was actually classified as forests? This is not to say that the villagers are wrong if they are forest squatters. This is to say that it would be a completely different problem requiring a different set of standards to deal with it.

Also, I wondered the following as I listened to the UDD’s threat to cut down trees and set up a “village” on the mountaintop as a way of illustrating the damage people like Surayud caused to the forest: Why do the Red Shirts see only the wrong of Surayud and not another glaring double standard? The Forestry Department says there are about 45,000 people nationwide who’ve made the same risky investment as Surayud by buying into about 5 million rai (800,000 hectares) of land that legally can’t be sold. I wouldn’t dare say the Forestry Department may have spent too much time in the woods, but I’m sure this minute number does not reflect the widespread reality. Ask your friends or colleagues. How many of them have in their possession these types of “grey” land plots? Check out all those scenic resorts and hotels by national parks and forest reserves. Can we be sure they are sitting on legal plots with title deeds?

Instead of harrassing only Surayud and cutting down precious trees simply to protest, I think the Red Shirts would do the country a service if they pushed the Forestry Department to apply the same standard of “punishment” they’ve meted out to Surayud to other buyers of unsellable land throughout the country: Return the land and they face no further punishment. That would be setting a standard, not promoting hypocrisy.

After listening to how the phrase “double standards” has been applied to many perennial problems in Thailand – pick any and you will be able to brand them as being ridden with double standards – I’ve really started wondering if this labelling will be of any help.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t prosecute those who violate the law, but I think we must concentrate on setting a new standard as well.

Setting a standard is not as easy, excitable and gratifying as shouting refrains or felling trees in protest, but it is a necessary chore. Otherwise, we’d get lost in the expedience of multiple standards and endless duplicity.

BANGKOK POST

Atiya Achakulwisut is the editor of the Bangkok Post’s editorial pages.

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