Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Wreck/conciliation? the Politics of Truth Commissions in Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Wreck/conciliation? the Politics of Truth Commissions in Thailand

Article excerpt

More than ninety people died in political violence linked to the March-May 2010 "redshirt" protests in Bangkok. The work of the government-appointed Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) illustrates the potential shortcomings of seeing quasi-judicial commissions as a catch-all solution for societies struggling to deal with the truth about their recent pasts. The 2012 TRCT report was widely criticized for blaming too much of the violence on the actions of rogue elements of the demonstrators and failing to focus tightly on the obvious legal transgressions of the security forces. By failing strongly to criticize the role of the military in most of the fatal shootings, the TRCT arguably helped pave the way for the 2014 coup. Truth commissions that are unable to produce convincing explanations of the facts they examine may actually prove counterproductive. Following Quinn and Wilson, we argue in this article that weak truth commissions are prone to politicization and are likely to produce disappointing outcomes, which may even be counterproductive. Keywords: truth commission, fact-finding, reconciliation, transitional justice, investigation, recommendations, Thailand


FROM MARCH 14 TO MAY 19, 2010, TENS OF THOUSANDS OF REDSHIRT wearing protesters, aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006), held mass demonstrations on the streets of Bangkok. In total, around ninety-two people were killed in violence associated with the protests (TRCT 2012b, 91), mainly--though not entirely--unarmed civilians, apparently shot dead by members of the security forces. In July 2010, then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva established a number of high-level committees to address a range of contentious issues in the wake of the recent violent crackdown on redshirt protesters in Bangkok. The most enduring and important of these committees was the TRCT, headed by ex-attorney general Kanit na Nakorn. The core mission of the TRCT was to engage in fact-finding concerning the bloodshed during April and May 2010. On September 17, 2012, the TRCT issued a long-awaited report on the violence.

A nongovernmental organization, the People's Information Center (PIC), had already published an alternative report the previous month. The PIC team of researchers comprised academics and activists who were broadly sympathetic to the protesters. Their report, produced on a shoestring budget, used a lot of mapping and visual evidence, in contrast to the text-based style of the TRCT. Their emphasis was on telling the story of the crackdown from the perspective of the victims of violence.

In this article we explore a number of critical questions about truth commissions, using Thailand's 2010-2012 TRCT and People's Information Center processes as a primary illustration. Following the violent suppression of the 2010 political protests in Bangkok, two rival investigative reports were produced: one by the TRCT, the other by the PIC, an unofficial group. In this article we examine the work of the two bodies, offering an exploration of elite perspectives and stakeholder responses to the processes and politics of the two commissions and their reports.

Typically, truth commissions emerge following democratic transitions in which the outgoing authoritarian incumbents have been defeated. But the circumstances in which the Thai commissions emerged were quite different: forces still operating in the political system, notably the military, were strongly implicated in their findings. In such settings, the potential for politicization is clearly higher.

The existence of competing truth commissions, as in this case, makes it virtually impossible to establish the truth. The Thai case also illustrates the limits of what a truth commission can do with respect to possible prosecution of the culpable parties, linked both to the mandate of the commission and the political forces in operation. …

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