No one wants to get in the middle of a fight between opponents who wish to knock out the other. Everyone has a theory of how to stop a fight once it gets started. A neutral party intervenes and tries to separate them. If the emotions are running high, the chances are they will turn their anger on the intervener.
There has been a great deal of public discussion about the merits of an appointed ‘neutral’ prime minister to end the current political impasse. In Thailand there is a public discussion going on about a list of men (no women on the list) who might qualify as a candidate for “neutral PM” by the anti-government side. As expected this generated heat and political controversy. The Thai word for ‘neutral’ is เป็นกลาง /pen klang/, which literally translates to “being in the middle,” synonymous with ‘nonpartisan’ (according to Thai social commentator Kaewmala). Whether that middle is defined as geographic, ethnical, psychological or ideological raises a number of complex questions.
The news reports tend to orbit around speculations and rumors focused on personalities. Discussions on social media have begun to examine the idea of what it means to be a ‘neutral’ person appointed to high political office in a representative democracy to resolve a constitutional crisis. An examination of neutrality as a political fix in circumstances in a climate where the possibility of civil war is openly discussed may help shed light on whether is a way out or a deadend.
Howard Zinn, an American historian, had grave doubts about the possibility of being neutral in the midst of a struggle over the political forces to be trusted in the allocation and exercise of power and writing and implementing policy priorities. In Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Zinn wrote:
“Why should we cherish ‘objectivity’, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in those struggles.
Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.”
Howard Zinn’s skepticism about neutrality is shared by Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel who said in his Nobel acceptance speech and later included in The Night Trilogy: Night/Dawn/The Accident:
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
On a more basic level Laurell K. Hamilton writes in Narcissus in Chains:
“Personally, I think neutral is just another way of saving your own ass at the expense of someone else’s.”
Neutrality means a country, a leader, or a person of influence does not takes sides in a dispute, conflict, war or disagreement between parties waging battle. That battle may be armed conflict or ideological battles that spill over from social media, TV, and the press to demonstrators and protesters in the streets. Such a person is seen by both sides as having no affiliation with the other party, group, tribe or faction to the dispute. Neutrality means no shared ideology that prefers one side’s principles and political values to the other sides.
The problem in some quarters in the Thai political debate, neutral is conflated with savior. That is an unreasonable expectation to arise from neutrality. The idea of a savior takes us back to the core problem of personality-centered politics. One person’s prophet is another’s heretic.
Neutrality is a distraction from the central problem, and one shared by other countries in the region including Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam is the weakness of rule of law and the corresponding strength of a culture of impunity. To possess true power translates into an immunity that rolls through the system from human rights violations, corruption, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, imprisonment or exile of critics. That makes the struggle for power an existential one. The winner, his friends, families and associates are elevated to life above the rule of law line that catches the rest of us. The loser slings off to exile, prison, assets taken, name blackened, disgraced.
In a culture of impunity, heretics are dealt with severely. Neutrality is difficult to take root in the thin soil of a culture with a strong tradition of granting the powerful immunity for their actions.
It is one thing for a country to declare neutrality in a war between two other countries and quite another for a person to emerge from a highly divisive domestic political ground where emotions are high, battle lines drawn, and a consensus amongst partisans as to whom they believe fits the bill of being ‘neutral’.
Appointing a ‘neutral’ person to lead conflicting parties to resolve their difference is a general problem that runs through all political systems. Who would be a neutral person for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party on issues of abortion or teaching creationism in public schools is likely a different person than one who would fit Al Gore’s definition. Which raises another question: can one be ‘neutral’ on certain issues like abortion or creationism?
Beyond these ‘social issues’ there are genuine disagreements over the allocation of resources between transport, social security, health, schools, and public safety. If one decodes the anti-government side, the neutrality argument is an alternative to democracy. If a neutral person can be found, someone fair, justice, honorable, wise and compassionate, what reason can justify the cost an election when there is a high risk of people elected that powerful people distrust? Elections, in Thailand, and most places choose a politician who isn’t neutral, never pretended to be neutral and ran on a party platform that promised benefits weighted toward the interest of those living in his riding. The purpose of an election isn’t to test the neutrality of a candidate. It is to test whether his or her views and opinions appeal more to the voters than his opponent.
The central purpose of representative democracy is to resolve the disagreement through a parliamentary process, which represents the majority view of voters. Voting is not a neutral act. It is a partisan choice. People are voting, in theory, out of their own self-interest as well as the larger interest of the country.
This analysis, you rightly say, is well and fine in a functioning democracy, but what happens when the parliamentary system comes to a standstill? There are a couple of answers. The most obvious one is that democratic systems are chaotic, messy and uncertain. That isn’t a bad thing. It means a politician who takes a position on an issue must persuade others that his or her policy or plan is rational, timely, and if implemented, with advance the interest of the people. It is utopian to believe any policy will coincide with the interest of 100% of the people.
Also, if the parliamentary system is paralyzed and becomes dysfunctional through actions launched by opposition forces seeking to remove an elected government, a larger issue is raised as to the nature and scope of democratic principles accepted in the system. If there is a systemic issue with the nature and process of governance, it is difficult to see how a neutral person can be chosen, and by whom, and if chosen, how such a person can proceed in resolving such a deep, structural issue.
Neutrality is another way to express ideas such as evenhandedness, fair-mindedness, impartiality, and nonpartisanship. Neutral is the opposite of biased, one-sided, partial, prejudiced or affiliated with a partisan side in a dispute. Power has a public face but there is also a deep power hidden like dark matter out of view that shapes and channels the flow of government activity.
Headhunting such an individual to fill the role of so-called neutral prime minister is difficult if not impossible to succeed. Who chooses such a person and who sets the terms of reference for neutrality? Who judges what records, private and public, are relevant for an assessment of neutrality. If that were easy, then those judging the neutrality issue would be neutral themselves and that doesn’t seem like an outcome anyone would be happy with.
What person with sufficient stature to break a deadlock between mortal enemies rises to that position without leaving record of public service, writing, speeches, or connection with the deep power? It is quite natural that even the most respected people have signaled their preferences about process or policy. Anyone distinguished enough to have the necessary gravitas will have taken a position or made a commitment that takes one side or another in an earlier policy debate. The point of democracy is to take a side and defend a policy position and seek to attract public support for that position.
Ultimately politics is about making choices. Who makes the hard decisions? And how transparent the decision-making process is, and how accountable are the decision-makers for bad decisions. How do we get rid of leaders who make bad decisions is a question that is resolved by ballots or bullets. Neutrality is not a means of conflict resolution. It is a way of avoiding conflict and rallying cries for the neutral savior rises to the surface when people are seduced by the prospect of an easy way to kick the can down the road.
One of the recurring ideas one hears in Thailand is: Thais seek a middle-path to resolve problems. To take that metaphor in another direction, if those in conflict are playing a game of chicken, each on collision path, neither willing to blink or give way, the neutral person is unlikely to persuade both sides to park their ideological vehicles and shake hands and put their conflict behind them. There will ultimately be a way out of the current crisis in Thailand. It is unlikely though to be through the appointment of a ‘neutral’ prime minister.
The public democratic process must be re-engaged, minority rights secured against oppression, and government actions subject to restraint and accountability. And there needs to be an open discussion on how the tradition of impunity has thwarted democratic development and what needs to be done to end that tradition. This article in Prachatai is an excellent examination of Thailand’s long record of extra-judicial killings, disappearance of lawyers and activists, mistreatment of minority groups, shakedowns, and corruption. No constitution to date has reigned in these abuses and no neutral person has been able to stop them from happening again.
The architecture of all institutions in a democracy must be designed to work not just for the good times but are resilient to turbulence when geology of political expectations and power start to shift. If the institutions are weakened, break down, and the parties refuse to talk to one another, one of the first casualties is the rule of law. Violence accelerates as the rule of law recedes and this loop further undermines institutions until instability become evident for all to witness.
There is no short cut to a Constitution that establishes institutions that can govern, co-ordinate their powers, and check and restrain one another. David Streckfuss, in a recent Bangkok Post opinion piece titled The Risky Road in Avoiding Civil War, recommended a referendum to ask voters whether they wish to revert to the 1997 constitution (annulled by the 2006 coup), with reforms leading to amendments or stick with the 2007 constitution. The problem is that an opposition that obstructs and blocks elections would also likely see a referendum as another kind of existential threat to their view of the ‘correct’ or ‘righteous’ political path for Thailand. Just as an election, in theory should be the mechanism to resolve a political impasse, a referendum offers such a possibility. At this dark time, it is unlikely that the traditional mechanism will function to contain the conflict.
Sooner or later, the way forward likely will be leaders who are forced by circumstances to address the issue of what process is appropriate for constitutional change and the substantive nature of such change. Stripping the powerful of their unofficial immunity won’t be an easy task. Both sides want immunity and the ability to act with impunity for their interest while denying that right to its opponents. Not surprising, given what it is at stake, there has been a drastic polarization of political forces in Thailand. Meanwhile, one can expect political strife to intensify.
If there is to be a new constitutional framework, it will need widespread consensus among the powerful and the restive electorate caught in the middle of a power struggle. How that constitutional framework will deal with the culture of impunity remains unclear.
Political conflict, at this stage, is fueled by fear, anger and hatred, and that is no climate to write a constitution. The architects of the new legal structure will need to wean the players from their addiction to high emotions, easy slogans and learn an important lesson in designing a political system—it will need to install shock absorbers to survive future political earthquakes. The political geology of our times promises to deliver substantial seismic activity ahead. And sometimes the health of a system is when a powerful person isn’t able to subvert the course of justice with money and influence but must bear the full weight of the law like an ordinary citizen. That’s not going to flow from the words of a new constitution. When this does happen, something will have first changed in the mindset and culture. We are a long way from reaching that point not just in Thailand, but in the region and large parts of the larger world. Meanwhile, we remain hostages to personalities who will never be expected to pay for their crimes.