By Tulsathit Taptim
Imagine if Sir Alex Ferguson hugged Roberto Mancini wholeheartedly and invited him to dinner.
Fergie could even make Mancini the first name on his will. Or Mancini could kiss Fergie’s hand and tearfully declare that the Scotsman was in fact his long-lost father. To go to the extreme, either man could plead on his deathbed for fans of Manchester United and Manchester City to reconcile. Try to imagine anything that either manager of the rival football clubs could possibly do to bring both sets of fans together.
And they would still fail. The reason why is simple: soccer rivalry is not about two men. A city is divided into a blue and a red half, and nothing is going to change that. Of course, it’s just a sporting polarity, but that is the whole point. Any politician who believes that two “enemies” meeting can automatically bring peace to a country is delusional. No matter how hard it is to unite rival sports fans, to reconcile politically divided people is much harder.
Polls show that the meeting between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda has made the Thai public happy. Again, the reason why is simple: the Thai public manages to be happy because last Thursday’s encounter was about two people. Thais saw polite smiles and beautiful outfits – so, with the exception of some extremists, there was nothing to be unhappy about.
Now, let’s imagine Prem telling the public to accept a charter change even though it would absolve Yingluck’s big brother. Or imagine the prime minister saying that Thailand’s aristocrats only mean well for this country and the red shirts should sympathise with them.
Both Yingluck and Prem would fail. Thailand’s political strife may have started at the top, but it can’t be patched up from there. Thaksin can embrace Prem and play golf with every Army general who matters, but that will never bring back peace. Whoever is responsible for this political “war” is learning a very important lesson: you can tell people to hate, but you can’t simply make a u-turn and tell them to love each other again.
Things are getting increasingly complicated for the Thaksin camp. There is no doubt that Prem is, in the red shirts’ eyes, a top representative of Thailand’s “aristocrats”. But while his meeting with Yingluck is an eyesore to certain red shirts, her paying homage to him is just another straw on the camel’s back. The grassroots movement, or some of its factions at least, has been upset before by an administration it supports.
Political downfalls in Thailand can come from reconciliatory gestures. Ask Yingluck’s predecessor Abhisit Vejjajiva. In a bid to be seen as “fair” toward the red shirts, he alienated himself from his key allies, the yellow shirts, and in an awkward attempt to maintain his strained relations with the yellow shirts, he could never win the hearts of the reds. Adding to the complexities was the need to protect his own position, when both “colours” wanted him to leave.
Yingluck and Thaksin still boast solid red support. In some areas, though, resentment has simmered and questions have been asked. Some red shirts feel that this government has not made any real effort to take legal action against officials the red shirts hold responsible for the 2010 political bloodshed. To date, only Abhisit and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban have faced prosecution over the violence, and the legal process against them has been slow. Then there are the issues of the government’s vow never to change the lese-majeste law and the sluggish efforts to rescue imprisoned reds from jail.
The disappointment has not turned into a crisis of red-shirt confidence in Yingluck only because many red shirts still hold Thaksin in high regard. These Thaksin loyalists do not mind the apparent imbalance of the government’s “reconciliation” steps that seem to focus on the man in exile. They view Thaksin’s return as their ultimate goal, a symbolic restoration of justice to society.
It’s “the other reds” that Thaksin and Yingluck should be aware of, those who do not consider his comeback as a victory, especially if the return is a result of a political compromise with the aristocrats.
As former owner of Manchester City, Thaksin knows full well that no fan will ever wear the jersey of “the other team”. And that is just in sports. Here in Thailand, there has been real blood, real tears, real losses, and ideological differences ebbing to the extreme at both ends.
What will happen is hard to predict. We only know that political peace can no longer be achieved in Thailand with two estranged figures exchanging enigmatic smiles during an annual festival. Only specific people can start a war, but even they can’t put a real end to it.