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Not too late to save our ailing body politic

The release of Veera Somkwamkid from a Cambodian jail on Tuesday highlighted the abysmal disorder of the Thai "body politic". British political thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) defined the body politic as a geographic area with a corresponding authority: a state and its government.

Veera has been generally described as a yellow-shirt activist. He was jailed in 2011 for allegedly trespassing into Cambodian territory while protesting the government's handling of territorial disputes with Cambodia. At the heart of the issue was the 4.6 square kilometres around Preah Vihear Temple that Thailand may "lose" to Cambodia, following the listing of Preah Vihear Temple as the World Heritage site by the Unesco. His charge was upgraded in its seriousness to "espionage" and he was sentenced to eight years behind bars.

Whatever his political leaning, Veera should not have had to endure the hardship of a Cambodian jail for over three years, without the Thai government lifting a finger to help until now.

The main reason behind his lengthy stay in the slammer was political, with the dysfunctional nature of the Thai government worsening matters.

The Foreign Ministry ceased to function as an arm of government that works to protect and promote the nation's best interests abroad. Instead, it became a tool of personal vengeance wielded by the government in power, serving the myopic personal agenda of the powers-that-be. If someone were to ask what Thailand's foreign policy is or has been, the reply would most likely be a blank stare.

It was shameful that the efforts of the Foreign Ministry under the democratically elected government of Abhisit Vejjajiva were focused on chasing down former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra around the globe. These efforts left a trail of disenchanted countries and allies that we managed to offend unnecessarily.

Equally reprehensible is that the prime effort of the same ministry under the succeeding government was to "whitewash" the same person. The first order of the day was to return the ex-premier's Thai passport, despite the fact that Thai law clearly stipulates that anyone with a criminal record automatically loses that privilege.

Lost in the political recklessness were the rights of Veera, as a Thai citizen, which should have been the top priority of the Thai government, regardless of the colour of his shirt, his ideology or allegiances. Instead, he was left to rot in jail by the Yingluck administration, despite its claims of efforts for his release.

Lest we forget, the US government spent decades after the Vietnam War looking for its soldiers who went missing, either in action or as prisoners of war, regardless of which party was in the White House. Recently, the Obama government was willing to swap a low-ranking military man - Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl - for the top five "high-risk" Taleban inmates at Guantanamo. The sergeant was in jail in Afghanistan for almost five years before he came to the attention of the US. In Obama's words, the country had not forgotten Bergdahl - the US leaves no soldier behind. Obama's action was controversial, but he had the courage to go ahead with the swap because, ultimately, it was the duty of the government.

The troubling state of affairs at the Foreign Ministry is not unique in the Thai polity. Governments have come and gone recently, but one constant remains: We are a country without vision or real policies.

Our most recent "surprise" was the sharp decline of Thai exports to Asean countries, which collectively have been our top export destination both in volume and value.

Exports to Asean that had grown 5 per cent annually in the last decades have now shrunk - by more than 3 per cent. That is a decline of more than 8 per cent. The sudden influx of cheap goods from China was cited as one primary reason. We should have seen it coming, but we did not. The primary function of the Commerce Ministry in the last three years has been to stockpile and then conceal the thefts of rice stashed in silos, many of which existed only on paper. Before that, it was overpriced rubber saplings. There is no policy direction, no concrete mission that represents the real medium- and long-term commercial interests of the country in a meaningful and sustainable manner.

The Ministry of Tourism and Sports has not functioned as a policymaker to enhance Thailand's unique attractiveness as a destination for foreign visitors. Instead, it has been one of many places where politicians skim off the national budget.

With the Asean Economic Community's 2015 launch looming, our Education Ministry fell asleep at the wheel in the drive to prepare the country and its citizens. The only thing it has come up with is free computer tablets for schoolchildren. The reason? Every tablet represents a profit for politicians and corrupt officials. "Procurements" are what every segment of government loves to control.

We have talked about Thailand being a medical hub for the region and the world. But have we had the national policy to make it real, and not merely a beautiful pipe dream? The answer is a resounding "no". Meanwhile our southern neighbour, Malaysia, has set a goal of 2020 to become the top international destination for medical treatments - it now ranks third in the world. With five years left, it's right on track.

Thailand as a whole has been sleepwalking for years. The case of Veera serves as a reminder of how messed up our polity has been. There has not been any vision, direction or coherence in our policies. We simply drift like water hyacinth, floating down towards the sea.

It's time we woke up to these inconvenient truths and changed the way the country is run. The primary function of our polity should be to serve the best interests of the country and every citizen, not to line the pockets of the powerful few. It is better never to be late, but nonetheless, it's better late than never.


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