THAILAND - The military junta is pushing ahead with its reconciliation project, perhaps the highest item on its agenda. But it's going to be much more challenging than just getting people to sit down to talk nicely to one another.
The National Council for Peace and Order (PCPO) has also promised to come up with an interim charter, a National Assembly and a Reform Council in the next few weeks as part of the three-step roadmap before a general election is held. The loose timeline is a 15-month period of preparation before returning the country to "normalcy".
But there is no guarantee that the timeframe will be kept or that it is iron-clad. Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has made it clear that the deadline can only be kept if "peace and order" are restored.
But then, there is also the pressure from both the domestic and international scenes for the junta to return the country to civilian rule as soon as possible. Prayuth will need to juggle these two demands effectively if he is to make good on his pledge that he staged the May 22 coup not to stay in power but to put the country back on a democratic track.
The reconciliation plan is being carried out mainly by military personnel who are more accustomed to "psychological warfare" than bridging political differences. But if it fails to genuinely embrace civil society and local leaders at the grass-roots level, the exercise will be no more than theatrical spectacle for the local communities, never touching on the most serious issue of the day: How do we heal the deep wounds of mistrust created by years of hate speech and fact-bending campaigns on both sides of the political fence?
Previous attempts at "reconciliation" failed badly for one very simple and obvious reason: The powers-that-be only paid lip service to ending the hostility between the two factions. Forums set up to "get people to talk peace together" were nothing more than a publicity stunt that, in fact, was aimed at keeping the pro-government elements in control of all aspects of political and social life.
The latest military-led version has tried to create what it calls "an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation", which may be a positive beginning. But the crux of the issue is how to bring about "confidence-building" in a substantive way.
Confidence-building cannot be a top-down process. Nor can the junta order former foes to suddenly forget the past and embrace one another with mutual trust. Only real actions that reflect non-partisan and positive attitudes can draw people together.