Despite reports of irregularities, confrontations, and all the other drama that comes with an election process in a nation of 67 million people, tonight early results from Thailand’s general election indicate a crushing victory for the opposition Pheu Thai Party with about 264 out of 500 seats in parliament, making Yingluck Shinawatra the first female prime minister of Thailand. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva conceded the defeat on national television, and extended his congratulations to his opponents.
When I started working with the Red Shirt movement one year ago, it is hard to look back at everything that has transpired without feeling amazed about the transformation that has taken place. A year ago, our movement had been written off as finished. Our leaders were in prison, on the run, or silenced by the strict conditions attached to their bail. Our organization had been disrupted by mass arrests, military intimidation, as well as the censorship of our main publications, radio stations, and television channel. Worst of all, the government’s campaign of psychological warfare appeared to have persuaded the public that the massacre of ninety-two people was not only justified, but somehow not nearly as tragic than the loss of a few buildings.
People were so scared to talk about the killings they witnessed, and terrified to publicly show disagreement with the government (a fact demonstrated by the solitary one-man protests of Sombat Boonngamanong to hang a banner at Ratchaprasong).
A year later, we celebrate a stunning victory for our movement. The election result is all the more stunning when we consider the odds Pheu Thai was up against. Even with the full backing of the state, the assistance of the army, the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters, the control of the media, the jailing of our candidates, and the disqualification of dozens of our leading politicians, the Democrats were no match for a party, and a movement, that have inspired and empowered millions of Thai citizens.
Far more than for our movement, however, this election is a historic victory for Thailand. A year ago, with the country under emergency rule, the people’s freedoms at their lowest point in decades, Thailand’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law appeared in doubt. Today, the Thai people have yet again dispelled those doubts by standing up to intimidation and fear mongering. Their message was clear– enough coups, enough censorship, enough judicial meddling, enough massacres, and enough lies. On this day, we stand in awe of the people’s resolve, wisdom, and pride. Thailand’s leaders, yellow and red, elected and unelected, have much to learn from the people they are so privileged to serve.
Our joy, hope, and renewed confidence in Thailand’s future is tempered by the sadness we feel about the loss of those who gave their lives to put the country back on the path to democracy. As we said on May 19, their sacrifice will never be forgotten, for the loss of their lives has given ours new meaning. But to those who died or suffered debilitating injuries last year we owe much more than our appreciation and gratitude. What we owe the victims of last year’s crackdown is the fulfillment of their vision for a better, more democratic country– one where no one else has to die to earn recognition and respect for their basic rights.
A few days ago, Human Rights Watch issued a statement urging both major parties to “make human rights a priority.” We could not agree more. The next government owes it to its own martyrs to find out the truth about past abuses, no matter who was in power at the time the abuses took place. This process should be undertaken not out of any thirst for revenge, but rather because almost every one of those victims, whatever their political affiliation, religious creed, or ideology, was a citizen of Thailand. That ought to count for something. More difficult still, the next government must dedicate itself to dismantling the system of impunity that makes the abuses systematic and their commission unremitting. Transforming Thailand into a first world nation requires more than the improvement of its physical infrastructure, the expansion of economic opportunity, and the enhancement of standards of living. It requires the consolidation of real democracy, the institutionalization of the rule of law, and the elevation of individual freedom above any consideration of partisan advantage or practical expedience.
As exhilarating as this day has been, this election only marks the first step towards the fulfillment of these ideals. Years from now, when the history of this political crisis is written, we can only hope that this election will be seen as a turning point in Thailand’s political development. Hopefully, this will be remembered as the moment when Thailand began to shake off the idea that “reconciliation,” as Thongchai Winichakul describes it, requires “the sacrifice of justice and the suspension of the rule of law that could incriminate the ruling elite and their networks,” and started to build a sustainable peace on a lasting foundation of justice, fairness, and accountability. It’s our job to make that kind of history.