PAD at crossroads has a tough choice

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The organisation must decide whether it wants to campaign against what’s wrong or become a political party to set things right

There will be so much to reflect on when members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy hold a convention this weekend at the Rangsit campus of Thammasat University. At the top of the agenda is a highly contentious proposal to turn the PAD into a political party, but its activists are also using the occasion to commemorate what they believe is one of the world’s longest major sit-in political mass protests.

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Last year PAD followers stuck together for 193 days and in the process saw off two governments they deemed “nominees” of Thaksin Shinawatra. So much happened during that time that tested and re-tested everyone’s conscience. The protesters shed blood and tears and endured criticism, locally and abroad. And even after the movement faded into the background and was overshadowed by the rival red-shirted group, the PAD’s importance to Thailand’s political course was underlined with the attempt on the life of its leader Sondhi Limthongkul before the Songkran turbulence came to an awkward end.

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The seizure of Suvarnabhumi Airport near the end of last year subjected the PAD to international condemnation. That may be rightly so, but then again, as with various other incidents associated with the Thai political crisis, the airport saga was an outgrowth of deep-rooted trouble. We are left wondering whether to judge the PAD on the Suvarnabhumi episode alone or take into serious account its other pros and cons and what the movement has been through.

All through the Thai crisis we have seen transformation – from good to bad, and from bad to worse. If the red-shirted rampage during Songkran drew sympathy from those who believed that the movement was left with no choice, the PAD at least deserved the right to make the same claim. A few weeks before the Suvarnabhumi blockade, some PAD members lost their lives, and several others were maimed in a crackdown by security forces. The Somchai government expressed no regret for the incident, and investigation into why the security forces’ operation became so brutal was going nowhere.

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But the PAD followers gathering this weekend must also reflect on their good old days. The prolonged, peaceful rally against Shinawatra Thaksin while he was in power may have been a “blow to democracy” in the eyes of Western media, but the campaign in fact was everything a “real democracy” should be. With Thaksin’s omnipresence blocking all checks and balances, the alliance emerged to give him a tough scrutiny, which could never be expected from Parliament, or a tamed Election Commission or a neutralised National Counter Corruption Commission.

Thaksin decried “the conspiracy”, and his claim that the PAD was the tool of a jealous Thai elite to bring down a legitimate government was widely bought overseas. Truth is, the yellow protest drew support and sympathy for its perceived virtues, not through mobilisation. The carnival-like rally, featuring virtually non-stop concerts, cute souvenirs and rendezvous of old acquaintances was one place where the Temasek deal, the Ample Rich controversy, the PTT share allocation or the Ratchadaphisek land scandal were scrutinised inside and out.

Perhaps the PAD would be better off sticking to campaigning against what is wrong. There is a subtle difference between fighting against what is wrong and pushing for what is right. The former requires knowing what is right, whereas the latter can tempt us to do wrong in the process.

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No matter what the PAD wants to do – fighting the wrong or establishing the right – becoming a political party will make things either easier or more complicated, depending on the founding philosophy. And the biggest paradox can come on the very first day of the party’s inception. If the goal is to become a government so that it will be “easier” to “correct” things, then the issue will get very complex. If the PAD decides that it can languish in the opposition bloc if need be and fight patiently for “new politics”, then we may, for the first time, have a political party setting out to make things right without doing it all the wrong way.

Politics is strange. Everyone starts out with noble ideals, only to let “reality” intervene soon after. “New politics”, if there really is such a thing, is probably an environment where those old ideals can be kept alive come what may. Now at the crossroads, the PAD will have to look as much into the past as its planned future if it does want to create something new and positive for Thailand.

By The Nation
Published on May 24, 2009

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