ORDINARY Thais tend to have little trust in public hearings initiated by state agencies, feeling that the process does not afford real participation in the decision making on new development projects or proposed new legislation.
This is the case for local residents affected by big projects such as a coal-fired power plant. And non-government organisations often complain that a decision to go ahead with the construction of a controversial project has been made well before state agencies invite input into a pubic hearing.
Members of civil society groups frequently say they do not have equal bargaining power with corporate or government interests, even when they have hard evidence on hand or a credible study to back up their stance.
This sense of frustration often leads to such groups employing the last-resort tactic of protests, with eye-catching scenes such as aggrieved people blocking traffic or storming the hearing venue and even Government House in Bangkok.
For their part, the government and big business often make a counter-claim that NGOs object to all development projects without good reason, causing every party to be worse off in the event that their actions succeed in denying most people the benefits of essential projects, such as a power plant or a water management project.
They contend that the opponents of big projects are damaging the public interest when their actions lead to delays in the implementation of solutions to critical problems, and thus economic opportunity is lost.
Should we fix the public hearing process and its mechanisms and, by doing so, find a way to satisfy all the parties involved? Deliberative democracy may be the answer.
Deliberative democracy has been developed in response to a widespread declining trust in representative democracy as voters, after having cast their ballots, are consigned to an insignificant role in the steering of the country. This gives politicians, who are often corrupt, a free hand in running affairs.
Frustration at the ingrained corruption in many of forms of representative democracy has been blamed for low voter turnout and a loss of faith in democracy in many countries, including Thailand.
Against this backdrop, academics and social activists have turned their attention to deliberative democracy theory and how to apply it.
Deliberative democracy goes beyond elections in that it allows the people to have an active role in the decision-making process, leading to participation in the development of policies and projects – or, in other words, enabling them to keep the power of elected politicians in check.
Global interest in deliberative democracy has sharpened with the experience of the institutionalisation of participation and deliberation in the Tuscany region of Italy.
Tuscany has been testing the theory by putting deliberative democracy into practice and has institutionalized its concepts since 2007.
That year, the region endorsed the first law ushering in deliberative democracy, which carried a sunset clause that the law would expire by the end of 2012. However, the Tuscany administration and the people in 2013 reached an agreement on making the new mechanisms of participation and deliberation permanent.
The law established an independent body responsible for organising public debate on public policies and major development projects, such as railways, ports and dams.
The body has to ensure that it provides unbiased information for debate and dissemination. This is in contrast with the Thai experience of public hearings, when state agencies are suspected making the key decisions in advance and rendering the hearing sessions as a hollow process with a veneer of consultation.
Under the deliberating process, as applied in Tuscany, the decision to start a project will be made after the community reaches a consensus or majority. Then the proposal would be forward to the legislative assembly for formal debate and approval.
The process of deliberation contributes to the transparency of the proposed projects, as unbiased information has been shared and debated widely. This would also make it hard for politicians, senior officials and businesses to indulge in corruption.
Under this scenario, the bargaining power of local communities affected by a development proposal is increased. This, in turn, minimises the impact on their welfare, including the provision of adequate compensation, or results in bad projects being scrapped. At the heart of the process is that the people participate in decision making that leads to more economic justice.
In Thailand, critics are worried about the new constitution steering the country away from democracy. The junta-government has recently also set up 11 reform committees.
Borwornsak Uwanno, chairman of the legal reform committee assigned to look at some 100,000 laws and regulations, many of which are said to impose burdens on people, said he wants to change the current practices for public hearings, which he has labelled a marketing ploy by government agencies.
It remains to be seen whether Thailand can, indeed, move towards deliberative democracy.