Both Thailand and Indonesia have made the transition to more progressive forms of government.
In the former, the concept of democracy has repeatedly been tested. Even though several prime ministers have been elected constitutionally since the 1980s, military coups and strong grassroots protests against governments remain.
On the other hand, Indonesia has undertaken tremendous efforts to reform its political system. Since the collapse of long-time ruler Soeharto in 1998, Indonesia has become an example of a modern democracy among other developing countries. Additionally, the two countries differ in their treatment of long-ruling leaders.
Interestingly, though he faced public anger at times, former president Soeharto was able to head back to his beloved house in Cendana peacefully after handing over the presidency to his successor.
In sharp contrast, Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been in exile since a military coup toppled him in 2006.
However, both countries face deep grievances after an era of corrupt governments. Thaksin has been creating divisions by splitting the country into two camps, namely his proponents, the “Red Shirts” and his opponents, the “Yellow Shirts”.
Following Indonesia’s Soeharto, we still see the demarcation between the victims of gross violations of human rights and alleged perpetrators of those violations.
Further, these cases show how democratic governments deal with national reconciliation.
Reconciliation depends on the capacity of elected governments to establish or restore democratic relationships.
This is critical to the pursuit of domestic peacemaking. In pursuing reconciliation, the value of justice has to be upheld together with national stability.
To achieve this, two important steps can be undertaken, namely proposing a genuine apology and enforcing a legal prosecution.
In the case of Thailand, Thaksin’s sister and current Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has failed to build national reconciliation by issuing an apology, as she promised in her first address as prime minister.
The Yingluck administration showed no political will to prosecute those responsible for the 2010 crisis that brought Thailand to a severe political standoff. A bloody crisis in 2010, in which 98 people died, was initially expected to be a turning point for her government to achieve national reconciliation.
Yet no one from the military or the previous government has been held accountable for the violent suppression of the protests. While the Yingluck administration has provided monetary compensation to the affected families, it has given no official apology.
Meanwhile, of the 1,019 protesters arrested during the crackdown, 20 still remain in prison (World Politics Review, 2013).
This situation has been aggravated by the government’s arrangement to “protect” the military by granting them a major role in security matters without exercising much oversight, including of its annual budget allocation.
Meanwhile, the intention of Yingluck administration’s to reconcile Thailand by granting amnesty instead triggered political opposition, mainly from the elite and educated who had long been seen
as initiators of local protests against the Thaksin-backed government since 2006.
They view Yinluck as similar to her brother, who governed amid corruption and constrained citizens’ freedom.
In the Indonesian case, reconciliation is also easier said than done. Since the end of Soeharto’s government, Indonesia has failed to achieve reconciliation at the national level.
There has been no genuine apology from the current government for the shocking abuses of human rights, particularly during the Soeharto period.
One report completed by the state’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) is in regard to the 1965 massacre. Its recommendation that the government issue an apology has been ignored, and there has been no further investigation by the government.
In terms of pursuing legal prosecution, neither Thailand or Indonesia have shown a strong political will to consistently enforce laws. A number of initiatives since the end of Soeharto’s rule to deal with human rights violations included a law on truth and reconciliation — but it has been annulled.
In this regard, the two countries have aims to “protect” particular groups, such as the military, with long records of impunity.
In Papua’s case for instance, no apology has been offered by the Indonesian government for the state’s exploitation and intimidation of Papuans since they became part of Indonesia.
Ironically, instead of declaring a genuine apology and enforcing legal prosecution, the current government has initiated giving national hero status to Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, a former Special Forces commander and also father-in-law of current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Sarwo Edhie was considered responsible for ordering the death of thousands of Indonesians in 1965. This fact amplifies the assumption that impunity in Indonesia has become embedded in the nation’s political culture.
Both countries have refused to seek national reconciliation. If Thailand has been facing a prolonged crisis due to the absence of a genuine apology and legal prosecution, Indonesia also has long-term grievances that could turn unexpectedly into social conflicts.
These two countries will not be able to build a strong transition if reconciliation remains absent, particularly at the national level.
By Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge, Evanston, Illinois
The writer is a visiting scholar in the equality development and globalization studies program at the Buffet Center for International and Comparative Studies, Northwestern University, the US.