How to understand Thailand’s conflict

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Thailand’s political conflict has become intractable, dragging on for at least seven years with no end in sight. Analysts employ different frameworks to explain what drives the conflict. This is based on  how they approach the situation, what they emphasize and the options they consider for conflict resolution. My essay is an attempt to make explicit several conflict frameworks so we understand the different narratives being communicated.

Realism

Realism is perhaps the most popular and intuitive way of thinking about Thailand’s conflict. This perspective dominates headlines, describing the situation from primarily a political perspective, which examines how strategies of domination and control are employed. Adherents of this frame are often literal in their interpretation that the conflict is mainly about interests and power. There are several features of this framework.

Power: This view suggests that parties are in conflict over power and that amassing more power is the primary objective. Power and control take priority over issues of fairness and justice that many protestors are calling for. To see this, one need look no further than the hardball tactics currently employed by Suthep Taungsuban, the anti-government protest leader, as he tries to wrestle power away from the incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party (PT) because the belief is that only by taking power from Pheu Thai can Thaksin Shinawatra’s regime be eliminated. Similar tactics were used during the protests from 2009-2010 as Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red shirts attempted to take power away from the then incumbent Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Before the military coup in 2006, Thaksin had, over the course of his first four years as PM from 2001-2005, slowly accumulated a vast amount of power through what opponents label ‘policy corruption’ (i.e., buying political parties, controlling state mechanisms, and channeling money and power to allies, while systematically blocking access from opponents). The conflict is therefore seen as a struggle, not primarily for democracy or the elimination of corruption, but to rebalance power. To gain the upper hand, the opposition seeks to curtail the vast amount of power and influence that  Thaksin had amassed.

Proponents of this view claim that only through deterrence and force will conflict be contained. Through increasingly hawkish rhetoric, the goal of protesting is to goad the government to retaliating and therefore lose legitimacy, allowing the opposition to take power back. These tactics were employed by the Red Shirts in 2009-2010 and are similarly employed by Suthep. The weakness of this perspective is an over-reliance on threats and coercion, which generally leads to competitive and escalatory dynamics and a self-fulfilling prophecy. This orientation could lead opposing sides to engage in tit-for-tat strategies leading to a vicious cycle.

Legal and Institutional Stability: Another narrative dominating headlines, this view suggests conflict is about political instability. Proponents of this view argue that Pheu Thai’s rejection of the Constitutional Court’s ruling was the primary trigger for anti-government protest. The justification is that when the decisions of legitimate authorities are disobeyed, the credibility and stability of legal and judicial institutions are compromised. One of the arguments for anti-government protest is that Prime Minister Yingluck and Pheu Thai inflicted symbolic harm and the motivation for setting up the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) is to re-establish norms, rules and institutions to ensure a sense of fairness for all parties.

On the other hand, in 2006, an elected government was overthrown via a coup and the current protests are accompanied by demands for Prime Minister Yingluck to step down as caretaker while an unelected People’s Assembly is set up as interim governing body appear coup-like. Both sides of the conflict divide have taken steps to weaken institutions and contribute to political instability. From this perspective, the current conflict is about restoring the necessary legal and institutional conditions for a flourishing democracy. The question becomes, how do we move forward given that both sides have taken steps to undermine electoral and judicial institutions contributing to political instability?

Social Justice: With a different emphasis, this perspective argues for the transformation of macro-structures to shift patterns of exclusion and inequality. This view holds assumptions about the flawed nature of people (particularly the elite). Protesters in Bangkok claim to be fighting against corruption, specifically what they perceive as a corrupt system where a party wins elections by majority vote and then uses that mandate for its own benefit. Therefore the are calling for protection against the tyranny of the majority.

The flip side to the tyranny of the majority is often as the opulent minority. Thus the rural populaces are also fighting for social justice. They fight for inclusion, equality and a voice in the electoral process. The people pushing this narrative argue that varied forms of ‘isms’, particularly classism, are the root of Thailand’s political conflict. Proponents of this narrative argue for income redistribution, economic development, human rights education, educational reform and various forms of integrative power sharing. Thus, the conflict can be resolved by setting the right societal conditions, where all sides have a chance to participate in support of democracy.

Some would argue that attempting to overthrow an elected government violates the very idea of democracy protesters claim to be striving for. Others suggest blindly supporting an elected regime only promotes ‘pseudo-democracy’. This conflict is therefore not just about democracy, but the right to define the playing field for the ‘kind’ of democracy appropriate for Thailand. Recently, the Assembly for Defense of Democracy (AFDD), a group of academics, intellectuals, artists and citizens, have proposed a legally and historically grounded vision for democracy, considered by some as a more measured approach than the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) headed by Suthep.

Social Psychology of Human Interactions

The various approaches under this paradigm are informed by social psychology with particularly emphasis on human social interactions in triggering and perpetuating conflict. Subjective psychological processes are emphasized, which highlight conflicting parties’ perceptions, expectations and behavioral responses. Some features of this frame are described below.

Inducing Cooperative Relationships and Containing Malignant Social Processes: This perspective argues that most conflict situations involve mixed-motives, but overtime, shift toward monolithic, polarized win-lose, zero sum struggles. Proponents of this perspective might point to the increasingly extreme nature of Suthep’s rhetoric. While many people protest what they perceive as endemic corruption of Thaksin’s regime, many others were made uneasy at the increasingly drastic nature of Suthep’s demands. Not satisfied with Prime Minister Yingluck’s dissolution of the house, he’s calling for the eradication of all traces of the Thaksin regime.

People who hold this perspective will note the tit-for-tat strategies employed by the both camps over the years with the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy protesting in 2008, followed by Red Shirts in 2009 and 2010, and currently, the anti-Thaksin people are on the streets and, if the situation continues to escalate, it won’t be long before the Red Shirts re-assert themselves.

Left unattended, tit-for-tat tactics can fuel escalatory dynamics and lead to a vicious cycle. The focus is on the social-psychological changes that occur in groups as conflict escalates. Effective decision-making, rational logic and sound judgment becomes impaired (that means otherwise sensible people act out-of-character), as in-group confirmation bias and out-group denigration ensures that negative stereotypes continue to guide perceptions of those on the other side. For example, the persistent myth that the rural voters are ‘uneducated and ignorant’ who can easily be bribed for votes is at best baseless and, at worst, a dangerous misconception.

Targeting these social processes requires a close observation of the intergroup dynamics between camps. The emphasis is on de-escalating conflict and building conditions for cooperative negotiations. Observers of the protests will note that, this time around, the government and police have managed, for the most part, to not incite further violence. The dissolution of the house was seen as somewhat a concession, although perceived as too late by some, but nevertheless, an attempt to de-escalate the conflict. On the other hand, as Suthep continues his brinksmanship, the Red shirts, which have been relatively silent to date, will be expected to retaliate. Ensuing escalatory dynamics will make it difficult to develop mutual cooperation, to identifying common and superordinate goals for constructive conflict resolution. Unless properly addressed, these psychological dynamics may undermine any hope for conflict resolution. The conflict therefore stems from our collective inability to foster cooperative relationships.

Reconciliation: After it was perceived that Suthep’s demands would lead to greater escalation and violence, some began to call for negotiation and reconciliation. This approach looks at the relationship between the conflicting camps and targets perceptions and deep-rooted fear where intergroup relations are characterized by stereotyping and animosity. The focus on sustainable reconciliation allows both sides to see each other as human after prolonged periods of dehumanizing each other. The challenge in fostering reconciliation is that it involves managing three paradoxes: (a) expressing past pains, while envisioning a future together, (b) acknowledge past transgression in a transparent manner, while granting mercy, and (c) aspiring for peace and justice. Genuine attempts at reconciliation can be forged when these paradoxes are confronted.

Covert Processes and Hidden Agendas

This perspective encourages people to inquire about what’s not being discussed. It acknowledges the unseen and how it influences overt actions and behavior.

Covert Processes:

This framework has received attention, but primarily from foreign observers who, to varying degrees, are less restricted by formal and informal sanctions about what can be discussed openly in Thai society. Part of this approach is to highlight how hidden agendas and covert intelligence activities play a role in the conflict. This requires looking beyond the surface level activities in the streets towards the power brokers and oligarchs behind the scenes who may be orchestrating the protests for their own purposes. Proponents of this narrative share the view that intractable conflicts are driven by covert motives, interests and processes that are purposefully concealed from public view. This narrative emphasizes the importance of a free press, free speech, democratic governance, and watchdog agencies for revealing the hidden agendas of key stakeholders of the conflict.

This approach examines the dynamics between senior military officials, government officials, the monarchy and surrounding networks, and the inevitability of succession. From this perspective, covert dynamics and hidden agendas are always at play and whatever cannot be discussed openly will continue to influence the situation, from beneath the surface. Practitioners will recommend bringing to the surface the underlying anxieties and agendas so the public can be aware. However, as long as the lèse-majesté law is in place, such discussions will be limited. From this perspective, the conflict is about complex dynamics of succession and what it means for Thailand’s future.

Social Construction of Reality and Identity

The strength of this approach is that it gets all parties to engage in self-reflection and critical thinking. It also encourages empathy and an expanded worldview.

Social Construction of Reality: This perspective takes a radically different view from other frames. Here, the belief is that the conflict is less about the overt actions of parties but, rather, about how subjective meaning is formed. All sides are urged to examine assumptions about what is unquestionably ‘right’ in a given context where different groups (like Red and Yellow) develop and maintain inconsistent worldviews.

Many Bangkok protesters are adamant that Thaksin’s regime is absolutely corrupt and must be eliminated entirely. It’s no secret that given the charges leveled against him by the Constitutional Court, he is not innocent. (Also, it cannot be overlooked that Abhisit is currently fighting a murder charge and Suthep has postponed his court hearing till January). However, this worldview tends to overlook the fact that Thaksin also empowered the rural population by designing policies that directly engaged them and gave them a sense of voice and allowed them to participate in the political process in ways past coalition governments had not done. This perspective recognizes that Thailand in 2013 is drastically different from Thailand in 2001. It requires people to acknowledge that Thai society has gone through significant socioeconomic changes over the past decade. The political crisis has revealed a changed Thailand and unmasked divisions that were formerly hidden. Proponents of this perspective intuitively understand that it is unwise to quell the rising aspirations of the rural class. Regardless of how people in Bangkok feel about Mr. Thaksin, it’s undeniable that he raised the aspiration of the people who were formally voiceless and ignored by past politicians. Hence, a social constructivist perspective attempts to understand the subjective reality of everyone in the country (not just people in Bangkok).

From this perspective, the conflict is about the clashing of worldviews and the importance of subject reality. Moreover, it signals a need to re-evaluate the social contract that exists in Thai society.

Transforming polarized collective identities:This focuses on collective identity transformation and how opposing camps have become increasingly polarized through in-group discourse and out-group hostilities over time. This is evident in Facebook threads, Twitter trails, and Line chat groups across social media. The development of collective identities then reinforces the superiority of the in-group (whether that in-group is Red or Yellow; Democrat or Pheu Thai) and disparagement of the out-group. From this perspective, conflict resolution practitioners will recommend a shift from monolithic identities (such as ‘I’m anti-government’) towards transcendent, complex identities (like ‘I’m anti-corruption, but I’m not trying to over throw the current government either’) because such identities resist being drawn into the polarized malignant social processes mentioned above. The weakness of this approach is its tendency to be abstract and theoretical. It maybe useful to pair this approach with other frameworks that target more concrete goals.

Systems Theory

This paradigm can serve as a superordinate framework for all approaches mentioned above. Moreover, it views the conflict as a complex adaptive system that is governed by principles of self-organization. This encourages viewers to see the conflict as a whole-system and shift the focus from individual actors in the conflict towards broader recurring patterns of behavior.

Employing Systems Principles: Proponents of this view will argue that the intractable conflict we see these days cannot be traced to one or two main causes, but should be seen as a confluence of multiple, interacting elements. As such, the round of protests we see today cannot be easily separated from the events that have transpired over the past decade. Because elements of a system are not related to each other in a one-to-one, linear fashion, the systems perspective pays attention to the dangers of unintended consequences. Instead of removing endemic corruption by force, it may be more productive to begin questioning how the system-as-a-whole created the conditions for such corruption in the first place. The conflict we witness is a dynamic system with it’s own inherent logic. It is impossible to change one part of the system without inadvertently affecting other parts.

That the conflict is multi-level is another feature of this perspective. On one level, the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’ represents the electoral votes of people all around country, many of who are government sympathizers. Because, on the whole, the rural votes outweigh the votes from Bangkok, this translates into a majority in the two Houses in Parliament. What some protesters are objecting to, is how the Pheu Thai Party, through their majority in the two Houses, attempted to pass controversial bills, particularly the Amnesty Bill, through the legislative process without consultation, thus drawing attention to flaws in content and procedural integrity.

Unfortunately, the actions committed by members of the Pheu Thai Party may have unintended consequences for their constituents. From a systems perspective, there are two levels to this issue that are conflated. Therefore the ‘tyranny of the majority’ exists specifically in parliament but because of the way the Senate and House of Representatives work, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in parliament is inadvertently affects the ‘majority’ around the country.

From this perspective, the vote of people around the country should be not discounted because of the independent, unlawful actions of members of parliament they voted for. Unfortunately, in the fervor to eliminate Thaksin’s regime, this nuance is lost on some anti-government protesters.

Some questions posed by adopting this view are: Is it possible, that trying end corruption by removing an elected government – as well intentioned as that may be – subjects the nation to a political vacuum that opens the door for other forms of corruption to take place? In trying to purge the system of a corrupt element, could the system end up attracting the kind of corruption it’s trying to remove in the first place? This is the danger of unintended consequence that, by definition, cannot be planned for. Another question is: What does it mean for the system-as-a-whole when electoral legitimacy is pitted against judicial legitimacy? From this perspective, the conflict is an adaptive system that takes on a life of its own and requires multi-level, multi-prong, long-term intervention.

In reality, these different mental frameworks are intermingled and mixed, oftentimes within the same conversation. It’s useful to try to understand the frames behind people’s reasoning. There is sufficient collective wisdom in the country to resolve this conflict so long as space is created for differing perspectives. Hopefully, this article provides a first step towards explicitly describing these frameworks so that we can begin to critically examine our own thinking.

Apivat Hanvongse is a PhD candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

About Apivat Hanvongse, Guest Contributor