To reform, or not to reform - that is the question

BANGKOK - Thailand is in a conundrum, politically. The tangled webs of conflict are so knotted that no parties see a clear way out.

As our leader, the prime minister should be held responsible for what is happening to the country. She must be held responsible because, as head of the government, the buck stops with her.

She and her coalition must be held answerable because it was them who knowingly and earnestly broke the rule of law and forsook the principle of democracy.

They unanimously and unilaterally rejected the ruling of the Constitutional Court - a legal and legitimate entity under the Constitution - when it did not please them or serve their whim.

The picture of them locking hands, their faces smiling as they pledged unity in denying the authority of the court, outraged the sensibilities of law-abiding citizens. It was then that the prime minister and her coalition lost their legitimacy to govern.

It was then that they deserved to be called outlaws. Instead, they remain on their high horses, talking down to protesters, preaching the need to respect rule of law. A law that only they, the privileged, the real elite, have the right to violate.

The prime minister played victim when tens of thousands marched in the streets calling for her resignation. She shed tears, pleading with a straight face that she had done everything she could and asking what more could anyone want from her.

However, it's not a question of what she could do, but what she is doing.

She has been touring the countryside on so-called roving Cabinet meetings. At every stop, taxpayer's money was thrown at villages, local communities and canvassers in preparation for the upcoming election.

This was declared legitimate and legal because it was the government that did it - the law was never referred to. Meanwhile, the Department of Investigation earnestly seeks the heads of opposition leaders, recalling the 1950s FBI witch-hunts under J Edgar Hoover. This is aimed at intimidating the opposition into submission, and again, it is deemed legal and legitimate.

This week, the prime minister conveniently took half of the proposal put forward by seven independent organisations calling for a royal decree to pave the way for a genuinely independent body for political reform. Opting for the decree would have meant relinquishing her control over the composition of the body. So instead she chose to exercise her authority as prime minister to set up her own reform body.

By these actions, what the prime minister has been doing is moving a non-violent political conflict towards an armed struggle. If this comes to pass, she will blame it squarely on the dissidents.

The same process turned Nelson Mandela, by nature a conciliator who argued for restraint with his more headstrong colleagues, into commander-in-chief of the armed wing (the "Spear of the Nation") of the African National Congress. Margaret Thatcher called the ANC a "typical terrorist organisation", effectively labelling Mandela a terrorist. Mandela chose to spurn an offer of early release from prison if he publicly denounced violence.

Many argue that Mandela's goal was to force the government to the negotiation table, not to seize power by force. However, truth be told, it was Mandela who said that "the attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted only with bare hands". The government's repression left him no choice.

Another great dissident-turned-president, Vaclav Havel, described in one of his essays how Czech citizens were forced to "live within a lie" under the communist regime. In describing his role, he wrote, "We never decided to become dissidents.

We have been transformed into them, without quite knowing how, sometimes we have ended up in prison without precisely knowing how.

We simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less." His many stays in prison did not deter him from doing the things that he felt he ought to do. All through the years, he argued that political change could only come through civic initiatives, not through official institutions.

Here in Thailand, people in government still insist that we, the powerless, should suspend our disbelief and trust the government, even after it broke the law to serve its own political interest.

Last week, a doctor who professed he was no political activist pleaded for reforms before the election. His reason was simple and based on his own experience as a physician.

He asked if it was right for a person with a sexually transmitted disease to ask someone to go to bed with him/her first, and then go to a doctor after they were both infected. Rather, wasn't it right to first cure the disease before asking someone else to enter into a relationship?

The government is playing a dangerous game. Every day it is deliberately stoking the fires for armed struggle, a "people's revolution". The prime minister has not done everything she could. She is the commander-in-chief, not a victim.

She and her government were the first ones to break the law and violate the principle of democracy. Now, how convenient it is for her to ask the dissidents to do otherwise.

How can she ask the people to believe in the old money politics and to trust her to hold a genuinely honest and transparent election and then launch political reform? What incentive for reform will freshly elected politicians have? By the time they get elected, they will be preoccupied with making money to reimburse themselves, and paying back political favours. We will end up in the same reeking place we tried to run away from.

Thomas Paine (1736/7-1809), whose ideas inspired the US Constitution, said it succinctly: "A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody."