First major test for Thailand's military government

THAILAND - To impeach or not to impeach: that is the question. "This seems to be what members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and the people all around Thailand are pondering ahead of the judgment day tomorrow.

The Wall Street Journal's James Hookway said this week that people were questioning the "wisdom" of impeaching former prime minister Yingluck, when she had been stripped of her post even before the coup in May.

Political analyst Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who never seems to grow out of the conspiracy mentality that ascribes all of Thailand's political woes to one origin - His Majesty, opined that Prime Minister Prayut initially wanted to "protect" Yingluck from the impeachment proceedings, but had to give in to "hardcore royalists" who want to prevent the Shinawatra clan from having "any kind of "political voice" during these "sensitive years".

He made no secret that he was talking about the succession.

Neither writer bothered to mention that the most blatant fraud in Thailand's history took place on Yingluck's watch, costing taxpayers between Bt500 billion (S$20 billion) and Bt800 billion and leaving poor farmers even poorer due to the depressed world price of rice.

That depressed market is the result of the whole world knowing that Thailand is sitting on a gargantuan stockpile of rice. And the rice subsidy that some supporters of Yingluck called "an investment for the future" is in fact no investment in any accepted sense of the word.

Pure and simple, it was a populist policy that offered no real and sustainable merit except for the temporary illusion among some farmers of a brighter future. And that false sense of wellbeing pushed many farmers deeper into debt.

Debate after debate in Parliament clearly outlined the trails of the large-scale fraud involved in the rice scheme, including the fake G-to-G rice purchase from China that was in fact from a private company owned by a Thai political crony.

The company in turn sold the rice back to buyers in Thailand. Even Yingluck's close advisers warned the scheme could be economically disastrous for the country. But none of the evidence and warnings prompted her to review, curb or scrap the scheme.

Neither writer bothered to mention that the Yingluck government's moral authority and political credibility had crumbled, and that millions had taken to the streets to protest.

To comprehend the importance of moral authority, one need look no further than a few days ago, when over six million people congregated in the streets of the Philippines to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

Did the pope conspire with Vatican left-wingers to get people onto the streets to make him look good, or to send a strong message to people back in Rome not to challenge his authority?

As for political credibility, it was evaporating faster than water in the desert. Why? Because there was simply no accountability. Politicians made campaign promises, never meant to keep their commitments, and never accepted culpability, voluntarily or under pressure. When it came to the political big bosses or insiders, the laws stopped at their door.

They held themselves beyond legal reach. A ministry permanent secretary who kept millions in illicit cash at his home before supposedly handing it on to the "intended final destination" did not suffer the appropriate consequences.

Meanwhile a ministry deputy notorious for taking his perks both in cash and in flesh, acted as if he was the most righteous guy walking the earth, preaching down to us and telling us we just did not understand. He didn't shy away from making public statements that were false.

The culture of political impunity grew in leaps and bounds to a level and extent never seen before.

Many people are questioning the wisdom of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) sending the impeachment case to the NLA, which they say lacks credibility because it was set up by the military after the coup. The truth is that the NACC is bound by its governing laws to do so.

If it chose, for reasons of political expediency, to bypass the process, it would be violating these laws. Moreover, anybody who has paid attention to the NLA's work and debates would know that it is far from undivided.

In reality, most members have been working really hard, trying to do a good job and trying to make a difference despite the long odds.

Regarding national political reconciliation, which everybody seems to want but whose anatomy is little understood, it is not about a blanket amnesty with no regard for the rule of law. If people commit fraud, they have to be made accountable for it.

Currently being lost in the gobbledygook rhetoric of peace and reconciliation are the two key necessary conditions of national reconciliation - truth and a healthy and even-handed respect for the rule of law.

Thailand has gone through a highly polarised political conflict that has shredded many parts of our social fabric. For the country to start healing in a sustainable manner, we have to effectively confront crimes and injustices that occurred under the previous regime by developing a publicly shared account of what happened and why.

That involves two spheres of knowledge - the factual truth and the interpretative truth. The latter is more difficult to garner, because the opposing narratives of the events in question are rooted in conflicting worldviews.

But it can be achieved, albeit slowly, if the public start to open their minds to objective truth that can be empirically verified.

Legal accountability in and by itself is not sufficient to heal a severely divided nation. Culpable organisations and individuals will have to acknowledge their wrongdoing and express remorse. This was what Rwanda has managed to achieve after the genocide perpetrated by the rival factions of Hutu and Tutsi.

That is when political forgiveness is warranted.

So whatever transpires tomorrow, let's hope that the NLA chooses to do the right thing by the country and its people, and avoids making a politically expedient decision that has no lasting value.