Detoxifying our political past

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It was a rare sight seeing Yellowshirt activist Veera Somkwamkid in lockstep with Redshirt leader Sombat Boonngam-anong arriving to be arraigned on charges including sedition for a recent anti-junta protest.

Long divided by whether they support or despise ousted and fugitive former premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, it can be generally said that the political divide is toxic.

The toxic politics that are over a decade old, predating the 2006 coup, are so severe that some friends and even family members have become estranged as a result.

Yet both may have common opponents now in the repressive junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order.

Being able to sometimes look beyond Thailand helps. I met New Zealand-born Michael Lapsley last weekend for a one-hour chat-cum-interview and was convinced that Thailand cannot move forward united and reconciled as long as they cannot deal and put toxic politics to rest.

Lapsley, 68, is a New Zealand-born South African Anglican priest who played an active role in ending apartheid in South Africa. Back in 1982, while working to end apartheid in exile in Zimbabwe, Lapsley received a letter bomb by the South Africa’s Civil Cooperation Bureau, believed to be a covert outfit of the apartheid security forces.

The bomb, hidden inside two religious magazines, took his hands and sight in one eye. But it failed to undermine his faith in religion and reconciliation.

But he continued to preach the words of peace and reconciliation around the world as a social justice activist.

“Pain is pain is pain, no matter where in the world,” Laspley told me, in reference to address the old wounds of the past.

I agree with Lapsley in that the best way, if not the only way to deal with a painful past is to confront it. Father Lapsley said pain in the past often continues to inflict the present. That makes the issue of “healing” relevant, he added.

“Are we prisoners of our memories?” Lapsley said, adding that the point is not about forgetting but detoxifying the past. This is necessary because hatred doesn’t destroy the enemy but the person who harbor hatred, said the unassuming priest during the meeting in Bangkok.

What is needed, said Lapsley, is a “safe and sacred space” for people of opposing views and painful past to confront the past and lay it to rest.

This may be easier said than done in Thailand, where people of different political belief doesn’t mingle or open up but preferred to attack one another from afar, stereotyped one another, and find the idea of dialogue or deliberation abominable.

I think there can be no common future for Thailand if people cannot be at peace with the troubled political past which saw not just deep political hatred and fatalities on the streets from protest sites on both sides.

“You need inclusive politics. Wherever people are excluded, eventually they will go to war,” Lapsley told me. “The poison lies not in what we think about the past but what we feel about the past.”

That involves people’s ability to be empathetic about those who think differently. “In isolation and separation, you continue the stereotype about each other.”

During apartheid years, Lapsley noted that it was crucial for him not to just understand black hope but white fears.

“The head and the heart must come together. If we are too cerebral, we could do the worst things.”

Lapsley told me that sometimes it takes a whole generation to pass before the country can move forward.

I hope that won’t be the case for Thailand although deep down I think that might be the case. That means will be lose more years, if not another decade, before we could come together without political hatred as members of the same society.

What’s even more disturbing but perhaps correct was Lapsley’s observation that sometimes the past doesn’t go away and gets perpetuated from one generation to another. It dawn to me that it’s true as some Thais continued to hold a very negative perception towards migrant workers from Myanmar for the wars between the two kingdoms centuries past.

This is what Lapsley referred to as “the chain of hatred.”

As for the letter bomb which deprived him of both his hands and one eye sight, three decades on, Lapsley confessed that he still wants to know who exactly sent the letter bomb to him.

“If they are prisoners in themselves for what they did I have a key,” Lapsley told me pointing out to his willingness to let bygone be bygone.

Despite that, Lapsley said he wasn’t sure “how to handle it” if the perpetrator doesn’t care or repent.

That shows how difficult it is to get over a bitter past and detoxify it.