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Why Thailand is crazy over AEC

These days in Thailand, not a single day passes by without AEC (Asean Economic Community) on the headlines. The billion-baht worth of AEC campaign is zeroed in on with one single issue: to prepare the country and Thai people to compete with other nine members in the Asean Economic Community by 2015. Under the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the AEC platform has been accorded a top priority and morphed into a major populist policy. Any reference that has the word "AEC" in it would certainly get the government funding. That explains why there are hundreds of AEC seminars in the past several months.



At the Asean foreign ministerial meeting over the weekend in Phnom Penh, the Asean leaders still struggled with the date when the Asean Community (AC) would start. Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, the Cambodian chair, told the meeting that the AC should begin on 1st of January 2015 not on 31st December as agreed by the Asean economic ministers in their earlier meeting. The key reason was quite simple - a delay of 364 days would allow most of the Asean members additional time and room to implement remaining measures and prepare for the AC arrival with better preparedness. The majority of Asean members seemed to prefer the last day of 2015 as they thought the AC is a process that would continue beyond 2015. Rightly so, during the summit on Sunday, Prime Minister Hun Sen decided to go for 31st December as the date.

Within Asean, Thailand has been the only Asean member with a comprehensive plan to prepare for the 2015 deadline. At the end of October, the government has adopted the eight-point strategic plan prepared by the National Economic and Social Development Council. The plan outlines the strength and weakness of Thailand's overall capacity to engage the one Asean community. The Thai concerned officials drafted the strategic plan mainly from documental sources such as the Asean Charter, hundreds of agreements and blueprints, the Master Plan of Asean Connectivity as well as data and information collected from all government agencies related to all the three pillars - economic, political/security and social/culture. Judging from the plan, the Yingluck government will be spending a lot more money in months to come.

The strategies focus on eight priorities: the ability to compete in trade in goods and services as well as investment, the development of quality of life and social safety net, the infrastructural and logistic development, the human resource development, regulatory reform, promotion of awareness of Asean, strengthening the country's national security and the capacity building for key Thai cities to link up with the rest of Asean.

Deep down, these strategies reveal extremely high anxieties as well as the lack of confidence of the country's ability when Asean becomes a single production base. They fear of the unknown consequences. Doubtless, the narrative of the day is how to compete with other Asean countries instead of collective spirit to promote the grouping's bargain power. General speaking, Thailand as the Asean's second largest economy would benefit from the AEC because of its location in the mainland Southeast Asia and dynamic private sector. Indeed, Asean is the number one market for absorbing around 23 per cent of Thailand's total exports. Somehow, there is a lingering fear that the government, the SMEs sector and the Thai people are not ready for the borderless Asean.

As far as the government agencies are concerned, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are the three key driving forces. Kudos must go to the first because in the past two years for implanting the AEC slogan in the Thai psyche due to the non-stop bombardments from commerce officials and advertisements.

The Ministry of Commerce has the largest chunk of overall budget. It also knows very well all the serious problems the country is confronting in implementing various AEC measures, especially on liberalizing the services sector. It is not surprising that there are a lot of spins about the country's state of preparedness and readiness.

It must be noted that the Ministry of Education has turned the AEC campaign into "Let learn English" campaign, which is the major component of its long-term strategy. It has an elaborated plan to quickly provide English education to the Thai people both in urban and rural areas and equipped vocational students with skills and language ability that can communicate with other Asean countries.

Throughout Thailand, the AEC has now become the main justification to study more English. There is a surge of English language schools in provincial towns. Some regional universities in KhonKaen and UbonRatchathani teach languages in Asean countries including Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Vietnamese.

Amazingly, nobody really tackles the real issue of the country's rotten education system, which has produced walking human tape-recorders than the much needed innovative minds. Now, all the Thai citizens are encouraged to learn and speak English to prepare the Asean community while the education plan continues with the status quo. Currently, at any given day, hundreds of officials from district, provincial and national levels are taking part in English language training and the so-called Asean awareness campaign.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working hard to maintain the country's Asean profile which is not easy under the leadership and working style of Yingluck government. Within the country, the ministry has to constantly inform and remind the public that the AEC is only one of the three AC pillars. The other two - political/security and social/culture - are equally important. All three must progress in tandem to transform the borderless Asean.

Sad but true, on the social and cultural pillar, Ministry of Culture so far has not been unable to catch up or get the necessary budget for its own projects.

There is an urgent need to educate the Thai people about their immediate neighbors about the challenges posed by the AC. One of the ministry's long standing flagship projects to establish a museum that tells the history of Asean and its key players could not obtain necessary funding. Asean was found in LaemThaen, Bang Saen, Chon Buri in August 1967.

After the Asean Charter was adopted, Thailand has been at the forefront to promote the people-oriented Asean community ensuring that the voices of at the grassroots are heard. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General of Asean, whose term is ending in six weeks, has also helped to channel the inputs of civil society organizations. Thailand has become the most open-minded, along with Indonesia, when it comes to human rights and democracy. At the summit last week, the Philippines returned to its root of liberalism by stating that unless there were changes in the draft Asean Declaration of Asean Human Rights, Manila would opt out completely, prompting Indonesia to come to a rescue with a proposal to include the preamble of UN Universal Human Rights Declaration in the working document, which will be read by the Asean chair.

When 2015 arrives, the Thai hyperbole over the AEC will certainly fade away. For one thing, there will be no budget to spoil any more. After all the efforts, real or imagine, are focused on the preparedness for 2015. None has yet to stress what Thailand would be liked in the post 2015.


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