Amid all the reporting about the latest chaos in Bangkok was a remark from a very dangerous man who usually knows something about who is pulling the strings and why.
According to General Pallop Pinmanee, his old classmate and protest leader Major General Chamlong Srimuang had planned his arrest on Monday, which preceded the fighting outside Parliament, in order to “try to create a situation like the Black May incident” of 1992.
Little wonder. Chamlong emerged a hero then, seemingly urging people not to provoke violence, being pulled from the thousands sprawling on the streets after the army moved in, and finally, kneeling before the king with the unelected prime minister to claim his place in history.
Although things are very different this time around, one constant is that Chamlong and his allies have planned for people to be killed. Sixteen years ago, the numbers of casualties were perhaps more than they expected. This week, judging from the tone of Chamlong’s inane statement about national duty before death, maybe they haven’t been enough.
One of the difficulties for human rights workers in Thailand during the last few years has been how to stay involved in pressing national affairs without getting caught up in the scheming of Chamlong and others like him who inhabit all sides of the current fracas.
There is often a fine line between human rights and political advocacy, and many have inadvertently or deliberately crossed it, possibly believing that the removal of this government or that, this person or that, is what human rights work is all about. Some have become caught up in the dirty tricks of power mongers and their protagonists and have lost touch with their original agenda.
One reason for this is that the human rights movement in Thailand has never clearly distinguished itself from the ideas and beliefs of the establishment.
Most of its participants have accustomed themselves to the same manner of working, thinking and acting as the political, military and bureaucratic agencies, placing personages before principles, preferring niceties to realities, and keeping doors closed when they should be open.
It is generally easier to work with a government department than to criticize it, to settle for a small gain than to fight for a substantive one, and to help a good person get an important post in the hope that he will make a difference than to challenge his institution.
All of these things can in some way be justified. The department may encourage the signing of a global treaty, the settlement may satisfy a victim that she got something rather than nothing, and the good person may establish a new unit in a labyrinthine ministry. But none of these get to the root of the problems or to the heart of human rights work.
What the movement in Thailand has not yet done – which is a major cause of the disarray and confused taking of sides in the aftermath of the 2006 coup – is to make a clear psychological and rhetorical break from the concepts of society and state upon which the perpetrators of cruelty and guarantors of impunity depend.
To illustrate by contrast, one important person in Thailand’s modern history who did make such a break was Jit Phumisak (above), whose ability to burrow into the caste-ridden substratum of his society and question the premises upon which everything else had been built is paralleled only by the likes of the great Indian constitutionalist Bim Rao Ambedkar.
Like Ambedkar, Jit was a polemical writer with a keen practical interest in the describing and shaping of his country’s past, present and future. Like Ambedkar, he entertained ideas and authored works that departed not only from settled beliefs and views but also from those of his peers. And like Ambedkar, he did not take sides. Although he became a communist cadre, possibly for want of alternatives, it was only after his death the party could really try to claim him as their own.
Rights defenders needn’t go to jail or get shot like Jit to prove their commitment to the cause. On the contrary, neither Jit’s jail term nor premature death in itself signifies anything. Rather, what he represents is someone who was able to make the necessary break from the approved way of doing, saying and understanding things that enabled him to ask the questions that had to be asked, say what had to be said, and take a stand rather than a side.
A human rights movement consisting of people who haven’t made such a break can achieve some of its goals, but ultimately will remain trapped in the patterns of thinking and acting prescribed by power holders and the perpetrators of abuse, at risk of being used for others’ purposes. A movement of people who have taken an independent stand can better understand and negotiate its society, contribute to lasting social change, and at very least avoid being used by manipulators like Chamlong Srimuang.
See also: The evolving anatomy of PAD (Chang Noi)