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The open secret about our reform failures

Publication Date : 23-12-2013

 

Some think the question why "reform" has never succeeded in Thailand is the toughest question. It depends on how we look at it, because while "reform" is so hard to implement here, the answer to that question is the simplest. We have never succeeded simply because "reform" often comes from the top down. Most reformist measures we have had have been meant to solve political bickering or put a break on a power play. There has been hardly a reform that truly affected the people.

The 1997 "People’s Constitution" was probably an exception. But then again, politics quickly came into play and the rest is history. Politics does not only inspire "fake" reform, but it also can muddy real changes. Unless this is thoroughly realised by all parties calling for a political change at the moment, Thailand will have another half-hearted reform and go back to Square One in no time.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called for "reforms", and so has her arch-enemy Suthep Thaugsuban. Again, politics is at the fore. Again, it will involve deadlines, and fighting over who should do it, plus how, where and when. "People's needs" will be invoked by all, but how much real hope do we have?

Let's take a look at that 1997 charter. It was drafted because of social pressure. There had been a vicious circle of corruption, coups and uprisings. In between this, we had strong state control of the media. There was insufficient mechanism to counter the powers-that-be and enhance public participation in politics.

That very charter sought to foster two key values - strong democratic checks and balances and safeguards against conflicts of interests in the government. A system of assets scrutiny was introduced and backed up by empowerment of the so-called "independent" organisations like the Constitution Court, the Election Commission and the National Anti- Corruption Commission. For a while, it looked like the new system was working, as a man as influential as the Democrats' secretary-general was given a five-year political ban and many high-profile election candidates were charged with direct or indirect vote-buying.

What happened after that needs not be retold. It should only be said that if "reform" is put in the hands of politicians, they most likely will not try to uphold the values. All they do is find loopholes and excuses, or complain why "values" are twisted and used in a conspiracy against them. On a Nation Channel recently, an academic hit home on the issue of reform. He said Thailand's political strife was not caused by people having different values. Take away the "colours", he said, and we will see that all Thais want the same things. Thais want clean, accountable politics that respects the voices of the people.

It's the "colours" that make Thais think they want different things. The truth is, they only support different men who make them believe they have different needs. What Thais need is simple - clean politics that will keep corrupt politicians and military opportunists at bay and serve the national interest.

The 1997 charter was not written by Parliament, but by a special assembly. Few politicians liked it at first, and, deep down, not many would have liked it now. The Constitution was abolished in the 2006 coup, but before that the spirit of the charter had been all but dead. Even today, we still hear politicians question the wisdom of giving the likes of the Constitutional Court too much power.

Can we have another charter like that? Of course, we can. Will we succeed this time? Very doubtful. The funny thing about reform is that it's what all politicians vow to support but they don't really want it to happen. The evidence of that? The 1997 charter, its pitiful death and our current political mess.

 

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