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20 พฤศจิกายน 2013
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How Thailand can restore trust and avoid twin crises

The revival of street protests against the government shows signs of deepening conflicts and crises which continue seven years after the coup d’etat in 2006.

Although both the red and yellow shirts say they want a working democracy and effective rule of law, both place a different emphasis on these values. The former emphasise democratic elections and human rights, while the latter focus on the rule of law, with proper checks and balances on the workings of the state.

The street protests against the amnesty bill may provide an ideal opportunity for Thailand to reach a new level of consensus from both sides and overcome the current political crisis which we have endured for far too long.

In fact, Thailand faces not one, but two political crises. One is a crisis of democracy which caused many in Thailand to express their disapproval of “majority rule” that puts the emphasis on just winning elections. Without “checks and balances” in place, a parliamentary majority can lead to abuses of power.

The second crisis is equally unsettling;it is the crisis of the rule of law. Recent protests against the government came as a direct result of the blanket amnesty bill which, if passed, would have pardoned not only all political-related wrongdoings but also many cases of corruption and violence against protesters.

If corrupt people are so hard to prosecute and so easily pardoned, how can the rule of law be established?

The government pushed through the amnesty bill at 4.25am on Nov 1, and then, after unprecedented resistance from the public, turned around just as quickly.

It shows that “majority rule by numbers”, or more precisely by one man,does not only reduce the legitimacy of Thailand’s rule of law, but also creates a dilemma for the country’s democracy.

The crisis of majority rule can have significant implications for Thailand,both in the present and in the future.

In the present, they are causing an increasing level of political turmoil in the country as in the case of the blanket amnesty bill.

In the future, some decisions by the current majority may compromise the interests of all members of the next generation, who have no voices today.

Such examples can be seen in the government’s populist policies.

Some fiscally irresponsible policies such as the rice-pledging scheme and the first-car subsidy, as many have criticised, will create a financial burden for Thailand’s future generations in the form of increasing public debt. While policy competition is essential to the functioning of democracy, limits must be set in order to prevent a policy arms race that produces irresponsible populist policies.

To achieve this, there should be a platform, preferably initiated by a civil society coalition such as the universities,think tanks, as well as the business sector,to bring together all major political parties to agree upon the limits of their political campaigns and populist offers.

For example, the budget deficit limit and public debt ceiling should be set.

This would reduce the risk of the majority of the current generation damaging future generations.

To solve the crisis of the rule of law,the government needs to restore public trust through concrete plans of action to counter corruption.

I would like to propose such a plan of action, which would require the government to take four practical steps.

First, the government should show its strong commitment to fighting corruption by adopting an integrity pact,proposed by the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT).

Megaprojects such as the 2-trillionbaht investment in basic infrastructure and the 350-billion-baht water management projects should to be subject to the integrity pact, by allowing observation and scrutiny by independent parties,including the ACT.

The government must ensure that terms of reference and bidding processes for these projects are subject to the proper oversight. Currently, only the Ministry of Transport, not the whole cabinet, is willing to partially adopt the pact.

Second, the government needs to ensure that transparency is integral to public management. The key is to reform the Official Information Act, which many academics including at the TDRI, have proposed practical revisions to in order to make it workable.

Third, the government should make ensure that corruption charges have no maximum time limit for prosecution.In the past, most politicians who were convicted of graft have escaped overseas,waited until the statute of limitation period expired, and then returned to Thailand as free agents.

Only one minister was found guilty and received a jail sentence in Thailand.

Finally, to improve Thailand’s standards in countering corruption, the country should seek to become a party to the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention, which has high standards and rigorous external reviews of compliance. This means holding Thailand, as a country, accountable to the outside world.

Currently, Thailand is party only to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which does not provide as rigorous and effective reviews as that of the OECD’s convention.

There are no countries in the world which have not experienced crises. But it is what we have learnt from them that will be important to our country’s future.

Blowing the whistle has proven to be useful in waking up the government to realise that “majority rule” should not always prevail.

However, blowing the whistle alone will not help solve the problems at their roots.

To reap tangible benefits from the current public awareness, Thailand must now create a new consensus to agree on the limits to majority rule and to uphold the rule of law to a higher standard.

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Somkiat Tangkitvanich, PhD, is president of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

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