Former journalist turned Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue Michael Vatikiotis has an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal (also here) on the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand report that deserves some critical scrutiny.
In the first place, is his moniker a full disclosure of his relationship to the TRC? Vatikiotis has been working with several state and other bodies in Thailand on various “humanitarian dialogue” issues including the south and rumors of involvement in palace-Thaksin Shinawatra negotiations. Suddenly, he has popped up at the release of the TRC report and now as a booster for the report. His agency claims to have “full-time consultants based across Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines,” yet doesn’t list any current activities in Thailand. This is probably because they are secret. As a Bangkok-based operative states, her “role at the HD Centre is to participate in all aspects of mediation operations – two confidential projects in particular…” (in the second part of the Centre’s 2011 annual report). When Vatikiotis notes that “the commission drew on extensive international advice and support,” it would be useful to know if he and the HD Centre had a role with the TRC.
Leaving aside the secretive nature of the HD Centre’s Thailand activities and returning to his WSJ article, Vatikiotis refers to the TRC report as “a reasonably fair and balanced account.” He later adds that it is “a detailed factual account of events that is impartial, if imperfect.”
Nowhere does he mention the origin of the TRC under the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime or the composition of the TRC. Many red shirt commentators have focused exactly on those two points in suggesting that the TRC was inevitably biased from inception. He notes that at the launch of the report, “Red Shirt activists let loose a barrage of questions that were left unanswered at the close of the event.”
Fair, balanced and impartial seem to be terms being thrown about for this report when it isn’t any of these. It is a report completed by a government-appointed body that did not have access to all information and couldn’t answer some quite specific questions. It included members who have been associated with a particular side in the political conflicts it investigates. Perhaps this is why, after all the claims of unbiased and fearlessness at the TRC, at the end of the article, Vatikiotis admits: “Inevitably, and despite valiant efforts to remain impartial by core working members of the commission, the TRCT fell victim to Thailand’s highly polarized political environment.”
Vatikiotis praises the TRC report for being critical of “the military for firing live rounds and provides photographic evidence that soldiers were not just firing into the air, as the army has said.” This is hardly news to anyone. The evidence is enormous; saying it in the TRC report is hardly a breakthrough unless one is a hard core yellow shirt.
While critical of the military and receiving no cooperation from them, the criticism is muted. While commentators including Vatikiotis have claimed that the attention to the military is new and bold, the fact is that the criticism of the military has been so great that the report’s account appears behind the political times.
It is interesting that Vatikiotis notes the TRC report agrees that “unarmed civilians died inside or close by a Buddhist temple that had been declared a safe zone.” It is more interesting that he seems to agree with the report which essentially argues that the soldiers were effectively acting in self-defense, based on the Army’s own statements. Fair, unbiased? No.
PPT does agree with Vatikiotis that the fact that a government-initiated committee has released a report is something of a breakthrough. He argues that “hundreds of civilians have died in such conflicts over the past four decades” and that reports have never been released. We’d suggest thousands have been killed.
But that breakthrough is not reason for an uncritical boostering of the TRC account as “impartial, fair and balanced.” The developing plethora of reports all have to be treated critically. That there are several reports again suggests how far politics has moved in Thailand by the events following the 2006 military coup. Of course, the coup and all of the political conflict of recent years is blamed on Thaksin, not the military and the palace is hardly mentioned.
Vatikiotis says that “the report also presents a set of recommendations aimed at addressing the root causes of the 2010 conflict. The authors placed emphasis on the conduct of the security forces and the impartiality of the justice system.” He adds that these recommendations focus on “access to justice, manipulation of the stringent lese majeste law and the use of the military to manage protests.”
PPT will have more to say on the monarchy and lese majeste in another post.
For all the contrived boosting, Vatikiotis does point to some useful issues, albeit in terms that suggest that the perpetrators of crimes are likely to get off while others suffer, incarcerated for political reasons:
The recommendations calling for reform of the judiciary and the security agencies should get top priority. Next, it would help if leading political figures and officials associated with the unrest issue a public apology, as the report calls for. Although unlikely, some process of accountability should be explored, so long as it is fair and balanced. The government should also address the cases of those facing criminal charges related to the 2010 protests, whose continued detention is a significant issue for the UDD.