Time to reconcile, before it's too late

An anti-government protester waves a Thai national flag as riot policemen stand guard outside the Constitutional Court in Bangkok.

Though Thailand's economy has been expanding since 2006, it is worth noting that we would almost certainly be far more prosperous without our seemingly endless series of protests.

According to World Bank data, Thailand's gross domestic product of US$366 billion (S$460 billion) is up 76.8 per cent on our $207 GDP of 2006. It sounds impressive, until you compare it with our neighbours' growth. Singapore showed a 97.8 per cent GDP increase during the same period (from $139 billion to $275 billion), while Malaysia showed a 111 per cent increase ($144 billion to $304 billion), and Indonesia a 140.5 per cent increase ($364.57 billion to $878 billion).

One of the key factors in Thailand's relatively poor performance is political conflicts, mainly centred on the figure of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2006. However, the coup failed to end political grievances, which have grown with each side's intransigence and culminated in the massive protests we are seeing now.

The cycle of a refusal to compromise, leading to confrontation, must end here and now. It is time for politicians to reconcile, before the country sinks into a violent situation that cannot be salvaged.

The no-confidence debate is a good start. Opposition MPs should bring hard evidence to support their grievances, instead of launching another war of words that will only fuel anger on both sides.

Strong evidence, particularly concerning the huge losses involved with the rice-pledging scheme and the lack of clarity in the 350-billion-baht water-management scheme, should give ruling-coalition MPs reasons to reconsider their strategies. Examples of such reasoned non-partisan parliamentary debate are available all over the world. In the US, not all Democrat congressmen supported "Obamacare", and not all Republicans were against it. They based the debate over the healthcare scheme on facts. Also, a firm belief in the democratic system meant there was no call for President Barack Obama to resign for the shutdown of government after a budget shortfall, or even for the poor start of Obamacare. Voters will get to decide who is to blame when the next presidential election arrives.

Likewise, Thai politicians should see it as their duty as lawmakers to uphold high ethical standards. Only those laws that are thoroughly reviewed and fair will seem just to everyone. The ruling-coalition parties' pledge not to revisit the controversial amnesty bill is a good example. They have learnt that their majority in Parliament does not override the principle of fairness.

This should remind all those in authority to stick by ethical standards, including individuals in charge of agencies such as the Constitutional Court.

But as the no-confidence debate gets underway, street protests are continuing. And to the dismay of the many who support their cause, protesters yesterday continued their seizure of government offices. After storming the Finance Ministry and the Foreign Affairs Ministry, protesters turned their attentions to the Interior Ministry. Concerned at the escalation, the US Department of State, in its role as a "long-time friend" to Thailand, issued a statement on Monday denouncing the seizures.

The US is right to urge every protester to refrain from violence. At this juncture, all parties need to come to their senses. In taking back the government offices, the government must strictly follow international procedures. The protesters, meanwhile, have won their battle over the amnesty bill and should now back down. They have to acknowledge that the so-called Thaksin regime can only be "killed" by democratic means - chiefly elections - and not by violent street protests. Such an unlawful "killing" will only bring the eventual resurrection of the very thing they loathe, when its supporters rise up on the streets again. Matter-of-factly, the seizure of government offices is unlawful and this demonstrates the lack of responsibilities to Thai society among protesters and its leader, led by veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban.

Thousands of Venezuelan people were recently took part in street protests to denounce the government over the high cost of living. Yet, their goal was merely to voice concern over government policies and to encourage people not to vote for government candidates in local elections. Again, facts and reason were the mainstays of the protest.

The media also has a responsibility to uphold high standards of faithfulness to the facts. Individual reporters can have political opinions, but their reports should be based on hard evidence. By "facts" in this context I don't mean mere quotes from people in the news, but written facts that offer members of the public information they need to form their own judgements. It was disappointing to see so few people express displeasure at the protesters' "visits" to television stations on Monday. Given the principle of media neutrality, news presenter Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda was put in an awkward situation on Monday when asked by a group of protesters to blow a whistle.

Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek has weighed in on what he calls Thailand's economic suicide: "Sure, one could make the same observation about lawmakers in Washington willing to default on the nation's debt. Or politicians in Tokyo so scared of rice farmers that another few years of stagnation seems preferable to suffering their wrath. But really, Thailand needs to get a grip on these self-destructive, tit-for-tat street demonstrations. One obvious suggestion is to elect better leaders. Another: let government institutions sort things out."

Adding that, for better or worse, the prime minister was elected and has a democratic mandate, he urged Thais to end the endless protests, as the real loser was the Thai economy:

"The nation urgently needs better roads, ports, bridges and railways to plug into Asia's economic boom. Thailand could be a vital hub between China, India, the US and the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Yes, the place has that much promise. If only Thais would stop believing that endless protests will get them anywhere."

Corruption is plaguing Thailand, but this will not be cured by street protests - it requires the cooperation of all parties. For example, the National Anti-Corruption Commission's attempt to strengthen its power and legal procedures against wrongdoers should be supported. Only then will the real "whistleblowers" emerge. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said during the debate yesterday that Thailand's ranking in the corruption index had improved from 3.5 to 3.7 during her term. She should not be so pleased, considering that only 22.4 per cent of Thais surveyed believe her government is effective in the fight against corruption.

We ordinary citizens also need to change our mindset. Paying bribes for basic services and taking short-cuts for short-term gain should no longer be an acceptable part of the culture.

The Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand is pleased with its initiative on this issue, but Thai companies continue to pay bribes for business.

Only a stronger anti-corruption process can nullify protesters' claims and prevent the cycle of demonstrations from continuing.

If we can manage to do that, the government can get down to its real work of improving Thailand's competitiveness and income equality. But if we all fail to come to our senses and carry out our responsibilities in a responsible way, Thailand looks set to sink further.