Thailand desperately needs reforms, but how

opinion January 21, 2014 00:00

By Achara Deboonme

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All parties see the need for reforms, including layman like me. And without politicking, these may have been done long before the beginning of today's anarchy.

Just as some parties are quarrelling over possible reforms, the timeframe, and the overseers, how about looking at some key areas that should be changed.
First and most important is education. The ministry’s headquarters on Rajdamnoen Avenue is a huge complex of buildings and parking lots for thousands of people. Ordinary visitors always find it difficult to park.
Yet, the buildings and vast number of workers have not translated into success. In many subjects, Thai students fare worse than their counterparts in neighbouring countries, let alone the world. Though we have over 100 universities, only a few of them even make it onto global rankings. Fingers of blame are pointed in all directions. 
In fact, the culprit is the system itself: politicians determine everything, including education policy. As such, good policies get wiped out at the whim of every new education minister. Thirty years ago, only big schools of more than 1,000 students had a careers counsellor. Time has passed but there has been little improvement. Many of our children still get no advice on career goals and how to reach them.
An independent educator has suggested that a permanent education council be established. Consisting of educators, it would design a master plan for a 10- or a 20-year period. Governments during that time would have to abide by it, acting as facilitators and approving necessary spending. Free tablets could only be distributed under the master plan’s policies.
The second area for reform is the judicial system. Former attorney-general Kanit na Nakorn says he is convinced that the violence destabilising Thai society stems from social injustice. The October massacres of 1973 and 1976 plus the bloody clashes in May 1992 and 2010 all point to longstanding injustice in Thai society – and the structural faults that cause it must be addressed with participation by all if similar violence is to be prevented.
Kanit believes that current procedures have three weak points – they are inefficient, threaten people’s liberty, and are not cost-effective. The legal system’s inefficiency has led to a high number of prisoners. Jails around the country have a capacity to handle 90,000 prisoners, but they hold over 200,000 inmates – more than a quarter of whom are awaiting sentencing. The procedures are also costly as many cases go as far as the Supreme Court which, unlike in the US, is asked to rule on many things, not just conflicting laws.
The third area for reform is the military. Today, the Royal Thai Armed Forces are considered the country’s biggest single employer, with over 400,000 personnel. But unlike private organisations, the military has only expenses and earns no income. And unlike other parts of government, the Armed Forces are not totally subject to budget scrutiny.
Last June the Defence Ministry had no problem winning the Yingluck’s government consent for Bt3.4 billion for an Airbus ACJ320 jet, which it said would be reserved for important guests. It would be nice for taxpayers if information on its use was made public.
In 2009, the Defence budget jumped to Bt170 billion, from Bt143 billion the previous year. For the 2014 fiscal year, the budget has risen again to Bt184.7 billion. This was approved despite criticism that a substantial portion of the funds would be used to “return favours” in procurement schemes.
A senator has told the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s research sub-committee that since the 2006 coup, the Defence budget has been on the rise, forcing governments to cut spending for other projects. “Thai governments still have a lot of consideration for the military,” noted the senator.
If Thailand is to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of transparency, the military must be part in the process. This would assure all Thais that the armed forces are doing their duty with honesty. It would also help ensure that the military doesn’t launch a coup to support a party that would later benefit them.
In calling for reforms before an election, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has so far failed to touch on these three key areas. In contrast, its moves to eradicate the so-called Thaksin regime, have provincial governors elected rather than appointed, or put more power in the hands of village heads will not change anything. Most importantly, the PDRC proposes that the reforms be decided upon by a non-elected council. It’s not surprising that this has failed to win majority support, as successful reforms require inclusiveness – the participation of all parts of society.
Democracy in Thailand – home to over 60 million people – is undoubtedly in a precarious state. But unless the problems are fixed in an inclusive way, the current crisis will escalate, bringing an even worse future for both ordinary Thais and the countries Thailand does business with.