Hasty and half-baked moves won't deliver genuine reform

opinion August 05, 2014 01:00

By Achara Deboonme

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Standing out among the avalanche of suggestions offered to our newly-endorsed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) members is stern advice from Supinya Klangnarong, a member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission.

In her Tweets, she urged the NLA to pay attention to public opinion rather than just civil servants, when it comes to making laws about natural resources and public health. Notably, she was one of 10 activists arrested for trespass during a protest at the last post-coup Parliament in 2007.
“I hope that today’s NLA won’t repeat the mistakes of its predecessor, and instead take into account opinions of other parties affected by the laws – especially the poor,” she said.
Supinya hit the nail on the head, identifying precisely what this batch of appointed lawmakers must do to prove their intention is for sustainable actions to steer the country out of chaos and towards a brighter future. The list of 200 lawmakers appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order garnered huge public attention as soon as it was posted online on Friday, when traffic overwhelmed the website for an hour or more.
The list is worth close examination. Over half of the 200 legislators are military men, while many others are from the “anti-Thaksin” camp.
I don’t doubt the generals’ intentions in taking on this job, given that NCPO chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has assured us that the coup was a righteous move by people whose main aim is to restore peace. But one tiny issue remains here: If these generals should endorse laws that “hurt” me in some way, I have no way of holding them to account. Under the provisional constitution, an amnesty protects the NCPO from repercussions of its actions – including the appointment of the generals to review laws that will affect all 62 million Thais.
Few academics and social/environmental activists have made their way on to the NLA list.
There are, however, about a dozen representatives of the business community, including chiefs of the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Thai Industries and Thai Bankers Association. Having representatives from those three main associations offers some assurance that laws that should have been amended to facilitate economic prosperity will now be reviewed. But the question is, how will these dozen or so legislators convince the rest to endorse their proposed bills.
Amid all the doubts is one certainty: the first meeting of the NLA will draw huge public attention. Many are eager to hear what its main focus will be.
If the answer is political reforms, then expect to see a raft of new laws forged to prescribe qualifications for politicians and the roles of political parties. The question will then be, just how much of the Election Commission’s proposals will become law? Hopefully the lawmakers won’t place new age limits on voting, or limit voting rights by levels of education or income.
If environmental protection is a focus, can we anticipate new laws that promise greater punishment for violators? Or legislation to discourage pollution and help fight climate change – such as a promise to end fuel subsidies for ever?
If social inequality is a priority, we should see a budget which allocates more state revenue to the social fabric. Hopefully that will mean more for education and job training. It is vexing to see less-educated, poorer members of society struggle with same old problems year after year, unable to climb the ladder no matter how hard they try. We could also see more budget allocated for nursing homes, given that our elderly poor are queuing up to win precious places in existing facilities that are few and far between.
Thailand has experienced three coups in the past three decades. The first led to the bloodbath of Black May in 1992 and events that paved the way for a legislative assembly whose legacy was a long list of laws.
Enacted then were reforms covering restructuring of everything from the government sector to the tax system. Look deeply and you can see how those laws helped shape today’s economy.
Notably, it was the first time that Thailand thought seriously about research and development, resulting in a law to promote R&D funding. To win more foreign investment, the Commerce Ministry gave birth to a new agency – the Intellectual Property Department. Foreseeing a labour shortage – a problem that remains unsolved – two new Interior Ministry departments were established to focus on skills development and labour welfare.
The Pollution Control Department also took shape, along with the environment policy and planning office. More innovation came with the introduction of value-added tax, which has been the main source of government revenue ever since. The government then abolished special business taxes imposed on stock transactions, which helped bolster the stock market and assisted companies in raising funds. Witholding taxes on government bonds were waived, drawing more savings to the bond market.
Needless to say, the post-1992 NLA and government also took into account opinions from various parties.
The lesson for its successor is clear: whatever its focus, for the sake of Thailand today’s NLA can’t afford to act in haste and without listening to public voices.