Suggestions for reform from Thais living overseas

opinion February 10, 2014 00:00

By Special to The Nation

3,554 Viewed

Though we have been living and working overseas for some time, our feelings for and connections to our motherland have never waned. Our hearts still beat in time with those of our brothers, sisters, relatives and friends back home. When they rejoice, we t

As much as we want to stay away from politics, we see Thailand is at a crossroads, the most critical juncture in the history of the country. Either our country continues on the dangerous path to collapse, like a number of other great nations in the recent past, or she turns around and ascends the path to prosperity and happiness. 
The choice has been placed squarely on the shoulders of our brothers, sisters, relatives and friends who make up the Thai nation. And the time is now to make that choice. 
As Thais living overseas who remain deeply attached to our motherland, we would like to stake our position, express our opinions and offer suggestions. Being students of history as well as close observers of different political systems and their socio-economic development, we are convinced that Thailand’s political system needs major reform. And it is absolutely crucial that reform takes place now, before the planned election – otherwise it will be too late to turn around and avoid the collapse of our proud nation. 
The root cause of the current political impasse is the corruption rife among politicians and government officials. Elected officials are fighting, even among the same political party, for ministerial positions they know will give them the opportunity for kickbacks – handsome returns on the investment they have made to get elected. 
Ridding ourselves of this deep-rooted corruption is the only path to a prosperous society. Rapidly developing countries like China face the same problem. The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has made it a national priority to eradicate corruption. Last year, the Chinese prosecutors office announced that it had investigated 209,000 officials for embezzlement, bribery, corruption and dereliction of duty during the past five years – an average of 35,000 corruption cases per year. High position was no protection: even the vice president of the Supreme Court, Huang Songyou, was indicted on corruption charges. 
If Thailand is to compete with China and its rivals in Asia and elsewhere, fixing the corruption within our government system must be the priority. 
For political reform in Thailand, we offer the following suggestions:
1. A debt ceiling
Set a clear public-debt ceiling as a means to exercising proper fiscal discipline, and strictly enforce the limit without exceptions. At present, the national debt is Bt4.22 trillion (about Bt250,000 per household). If the Bt2-trillion loan for the high-speed rail line and the Bt350-billion loan for the flood-control project go through, the national debt will increase to Bt6.77 trillion (about Bt404,000 per household). We need to place a cap on this.
2. Balance the budget
All future Thai governments must be required by law to provide a balanced fiscal budget. They cannot keep spending public money and building debt as they like on programmes that do not clearly provide any return on the investment. 
3. Public referendum on any mega-loan projects
Reforms must include a policy making mega-loan projects subject to a mandatory public vote. Any prospective mega-loan of more than, let’s say, Bt10 billion should go to a nationwide referendum. This is standard practice in many states in the US. In 2012, the State of New Jersey requested the public to vote to approve a loan (public bond) of $750 million (Bt24.6 billion) for an infrastructure improvement project.
4. Action against rampant perjury by officials
_ In recent years, we have frequently witnessed public officials – government ministers, MPs, senior police officers and spokespersons for agencies such as CAPO – intentionally mislead the public when talking to the media and thereby cause confusion and conflict in many communities.  
_ While ordinary citizens have the right of free speech and are not held to such high standards, deliberate falsehood spoken by officials in the course of public duties must be considered a dereliction of those duties. Such actions should be punished with a mandatory jail term and fine – with no exceptions.  
_ In addition, these officials are to be dismissed permanently without pension from all government agencies. The charge of public perjury should be retroactive, so that miscreants could be prosecuted even after leaving office.
_ Politicians and party members who violate this law could also be banned from politics for life.  
_ Should any act of perjury lead to loss of life and property, the individuals responsible must personally pay compensation.  
_ Those questioning the need for such severe punishment should remember that government officials are often role models and must therefore abide by an extremely high standard of morality.
5. Penalties for corruption
_ Reforms must demand that all future governments make graft the top priority of national policy, as China’s President Xi Jinping has done. Corruption laws must be strictly enforced by politically independent arms of the judicial branch. 
In addition, there should be a reinforcing mechanism to ensure that such charges move forward. Citizens should be able to trigger graft charges against a politician via a petition of eligible voters (maybe 10,000 signatures).
_ Any politician, government official or contractor for a government project who is found guilty of corruption, embezzlement, bribery and/or dereliction of duty must be handed a mandatory jail term and fine. The penalty must be severe regardless of the degree of guilt, so as to deter all forms of corruption,  
_ Corruption cases should have no statute of limitation.  
_ Individuals found to be corrupt have all family assets seized, regardless of the degree of guilt.  
_ Practices and acts considered as corruption (for example, using public funds to take holidays) are to be clearly listed and posted in front of public government buildings and facilities to remind everyone of these illegal acts.  
_ All ministers and senior government officials must file monthly reports of any gift(s), including money, received. Failure to do so risks prosecution.  
_ All government officials must attend annual ant-corruption awareness courses.  
_ All must sign a public oath against all forms of corruption, which will be treated as a contract with binding and legal consequences when violated.
This is the first section of a three-part article to be continued in tomorrow and Wednesday’s editions of The Nation.