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PDRC reform forums are useful, but more inclusive debate is still needed

After more than three months of street protests demanding reforms before an election, the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee held the last of six forums last Friday to seek a consensus on key reform topics.

This was a step forward for the PDRC as they're now discussing something tangible and not just making empty demands. However, the whole process is still in its inception stage with many issues raised not certain to be finally adopted and the reform talks much less participatory and more centrally directed than the process ideally should be.

It is also unclear as to when the PDRC can truly come up with concrete reform proposals, as the first round of reform discussion touched on six topics ranging from police reform, electoral-political reform and judicial reform to bureaucratic reform that are still inconclusive and in the exploratory stage. Some key topics of interest to others such as education, the army and the controversial lese majeste law were not even included.

While the pro-government red shirts are definitely not part of the PDRC reform process, ordinary PDRC supporters also had very limited scope to participate and direct the reform agenda. All guest speakers and moderators were selected by the PDRC leadership to frame the discussion and make proposals, while ordinary PDRC supporters had to compete for a limited time slot of three minutes per person to air their views.

It is encouraging however that some guest speakers such as Theerapat Serirangan, chairman of the Political Development Council and a former cabinet member under the junta-appointed Surayud Chulanont administration, stressed the need for a national referendum to endorse key reform issues including a directly elected prime minister.

Nevertheless, the PDRC leadership unwaveringly insisted on pushing reform through an unelected government that would replace the incumbent caretaker Yingluck Shinawatra administration - a move that would definitely meet opposition by pro-government supporters and lead to doubts over its feasibility.

Although the reform process was limited to supporters of the PDRC, some of the issues raised overlapped with concerns voiced by members of opposing groups such as the pro-government red shirts.

Ideas floated at the forum such as locally elected governors replacing centrally appointed governors enjoyed wide support among the so-called progressive red-shirt wing, particularly the Midnight University community of scholars based in Chiang Mai. So might be the idea of a directly elected prime minister.

It's unlikely that the red shirts would support reform of the police since it is seen as a dependable arm of the current administration with close ties to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. At the PDRC session on police reform, suggestions were made to decentralise the force and place police under the authority of the governor of each province.

The issue of ensuring that government officials do not end up becoming "slaves" to politicians, as proposed during one PDRC session, is also expected to be controversial with many red shirts supporting the idea of citizens exercising sovereign power through politicians, who should be the bosses of government officials. The PDRC wants less political control over government officials, however, and this boils down to very starkly different visions of politics between PDRC supporters and red shirts.

While PDRC leaders and supporters are deeply distrustful of elected politicians and spent hours during the six days of the reform forum to deliberate ways to lessen the unchecked power of politicians, the red shirts want to ensure that supreme power rests in the hands of elected politicians and not unelected bureaucrats and independent organisations under the constitution, which they see as a threat to the electoral power of citizens.

The conflicting reality of "one country, two visions for the future of Thailand" is unlikely to be resolved peacefully as long as both sides refuse to sit at the same table to discuss how they would like to see the country shaped in the years to come.





Controversial issues

Some controversial issues raised during the first round of the reform forum held by the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee. None of the proposals has been adopted by the PDRC yet.

_ Directly elected prime minister

_ Directly elected governors of provinces

_ Police placed under the authority of elected governors

_ Immediate punishment for those found guilty of graft and corruption with one participant proposing a mandatory death penalty

_ Elimination of the Senate

_ Labour unions for all ministries that would have a say in the appointment of senior officials


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