Sunday, September 2, 2012

Since we don't trust ourselves, let's get outside help

The irony isn’t lost on anyone trying to understand Thailand’s “roadmap” towards resolving its long drawn-out internal political conflicts.

Outsiders consider this country where a regional peace and reconciliation council could be set up because of Thailand’s well-known role as an effective “peace broker” for neighbours. Yet, there is no light at the other end of the tunnel to resolve our very own issue of the lack of peace and reconciliation.

The Truth for Reconciliation Commission (TRC) headed by Dr Kanit na Nakhon has refused to have its term extended. It is expected to release its final report and recommendations soon. But nobody expects the government or its opponents – and all the other parties to the conflict for that matter --- to take the proposals seriously.

Sure, lip service will be plentiful all around. But even Dr Kanit and his team of well-known and respected academics have decided to wash their hands off the unenviable task of trying to find the “middle grounds” where all parties could converge to begin the arduous task of national reconciliation.

If the TRC members are disillusioned with their mission, you can’t expect others in the academic, business or non-partisan circles to have to play any part in the confidence-building process. The country’s most qualified “best and the brightest” have had their fingers burned. People I have talked to about taking part in the peace process have all said they see the whole exercise going nowhere.

The reason for this state of despair is plain to see: Neither side is willing to see the other side’s position. It may not be unfair to suggest that all the parties to the conflict have somehow seen conflict as a “growth industry” for them. That means they consider the continued existence of conflict being more beneficial to their cause than trying to find a solution.

So far, the ruling Pheu Thai and opposition Democrat Party have refused to follow what most experts on negotiations have suggested: They have refused to separate the people from the problem; they have stressed their positions rather than considering the interests involved. So far, the opponents have not invented multiple options for mutual gains and worst of all, they haven’t come around to basing their negotiations on objective standards.

It is against this background of local fragmentation that a number of Asian statesmen and leading international public policy figures are meeting in Bangkok next month to discuss a plan to set up an “Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council (APRC).”

The Bangkok forum, being put together by Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy premier and foreign minister, is billed as an attempt to create a regional vehicle to help nations prevent future conflict and facilitate peace processes throughout Asia.

He told me: “It has been agreed that Asia lacks its peace-facilitating body or institute. These are noted and experienced individuals who can help create peace dialogues. Collectively, their good offices can render shuttle diplomacy and engage various parties towards peace…”

Even if the real, tangible benefits have yet to be crystallized, the fact that this group of well-known public policy experts from around Asia are willing to come to Bangkok for a “preparatory meeting” is in itself a highly encouraging sign.

The founding members who have confirmed their participation include former East Timor president Jose Ramos Horta, Pakistan’s former PM Shaukat Aziz, former Malaysian PM Tun Abdullah Badawi, Austria’s former chancellor Dr Alfred Gusenbauer, Indonesian’s ex-vice president Jusuf Kalla and the Philippines’ former House speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.

If this first baby step towards forming a regional peace and reconciliation body is to gain some degree of credibility, governments must stay out of the picture. That’s probably why the Saranrom Institute of the Foreign Affairs Foundation is offering its role as a facilitator and the Thai foreign ministry can’t get involved, officially or otherwise.

It would probably be too ambitious to suggest that this group of Asia’s public figures could start with looking into the possibility of playing the role of “peace-broker” over the South China Sea conflicts. But what would be the point of mobilizing the region’s best foreign policy brains without addressing the issue of the day?

Do I have the audacity to suggest that perhaps once the APRC is formed, one of its not-so-official missions is to see whether they could start with a “stress test” of helping Thailand resolve its internal conflict.

We have probably drained our own domestic resources and we don’t trust one another anymore. Perhaps, the “good offices” of some outside experts might come in handy. After all, as Dr Surakiart said – and I couldn’t agree more – we Thais have this very bizarre mentality of putting more trust on outsiders than those in our midst.

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