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     Volume 10 |Issue 27 | July 15, 2011 |


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Searching for New Common Ground

Kavi Chongkittavorn


Democratic progress, political stability and economic prosperity will be maintained if the Pheu Thai-led government is able to find new common ground for uniting all stakeholders - including bureaucrats, the military, private sector, civil society groups and media, as well as the royal institution. Most importantly, however, is the way the ruling party handles issues of administration of justice. Overcoming these multi-fold challenges requires a strong dose of Thai resilience.

The two-million plus strong Thai bureaucrats are considered more stable and conservative than any of their equals in the region. During 2001-2006, they were given a big shake-up due to reform initiatives from politicians who preferred a businesslike or CEO-style approach. Their legacies remain until today. One is the Public Sector Development Commission (PSDC), set up in 2002 to check on the Office of Civil Affairs Administration. Meritocracy was supposed to replace the patron-client relations within the bureaucratic polity. Somehow, old habits die hard. The new government can no longer rely on the annual reshuffle exercise as a means to improve overall efficiency and rule-based governance. The PSDC will be used intensively as a means to enforce radical change in the bureaucracy.

The outgoing government faced obstacles in implementing policies at various levels when they were left in bureaucratic hands, especially those linked to decentralisation at the provincial and district levels. Plenty of rural development projects and works have been either delayed or improperly implemented. In the beginning, the new breed of local administrators was able to challenge the capital-centred approach with local policies and idealism. Since 1997, development programmes at local levels are omnipresent.

However, due to strong personal and structural influence from the centre of late, local administrators have become partially co-opted. This year, only 26 percent of 35 percent of the national budget as mandated by the constitution was disposed to 77 provinces and over 6,744 districts. The new government will dispose of the budget quickly. Overall, bureaucrats will be once again put on guard as assertive politicians press them harder to follow a pledged populist agenda. Striking a balance is pivotal to making progress.

For years, the Thai military remained inside the barracks. After a 14-year absence from the streets of Bangkok since 1992, the 2006 coup marked a new political turning point that led to the popular doomsday analysis of Thai democracy. With the current political situation, the pragmatic military is on a great retreat for its own good. This path will remain as long as the ruling party does not undermine its security mandate under the Constitution. These perceived threats come in various forms such as policies towards neighbouring countries and lese majeste cases. Incoming power wielders will be responsible for all possible entrapment — quite a lot were of their own making-and subsequent political settlements. Their predecessors managed, albeit under heavy media criticism, to engage the military with professionalism and forceful rules of engagement. If this pattern is broken, there could be eruptions of government-military relations.

The private sector in Thailand is the most flexible and adaptable to unpredictable business environments caused by numerous political crises. It follows business intuition for the best efforts to improve economic environment and seldom questions the rationale. However, the business-oriented new leaders and their top-down policies will obviously frustrate other players used to consultation and fair play. Big corporations with links to the Thaksin empire, while benefiting from the ties, will be under greater public scrutiny. Civil society groups will be watching for policy corruption and the lack of governance and corporate responsibility that was trademark under previous Thaksin regimes.

But civil society groups have to become more sophisticated and encompassing in coming years. The past two years witnessed healthy growth of civic engagement, especially in environment protection and community-based activities. Mobilisation on specific issues has become the norm. However, with a strong partisan approach from now on, volunteerism will acquire new meaning and purpose. New civil groups associated with the ruling party will pop up and be at the forefront of public campaigning for a populist agenda. Future collisions can be avoided with proper law enforcement and democratic space.

Media sectors, after a short stint of enthusiasm with high advertising revenue during the election, will certainly face severe crackdowns in the near future. Complaints of media mistreatment will quickly emerge. New reality will set in — a possible rerun of the 2001-06 media gagging measures that held back media freedom. Again, the strong poll showing will without doubt tempt officials in charge of media policies to rein in journalists, while their outlets are grappling with creditability issues following alleged bribery scandals from the Pheu Thai party during the election.

History is likely to repeat itself within the media. With its powerful Thaicom satellite and telecom networks, a new media monopoly will emerge to ensure private entrepreneurs' strong backing for government-initiated policies and warding off unwanted views. At the same time, the operation of more than 8,000 community radio stations will serve as the litmus test for the new government's policies of promoting community-building efforts and freedom of expression. Lapdog journalism will be in vogue once again.

The royal institution, which has been so adept with change over the past 200 years, now must respond to new environments with alertness to maintain influence and prestige. There is nothing wrong with that. There will be unusual levels of manifestation of loyalty by all concerned groups.

Finally, even if common ground can be forged, the administration of justice and its outcome on key issues on victims of political violence in Bangkok or elsewhere, including previous gross violations of human rights by the state apparatus, will determine the new government's longevity. The term "double standard" often used in the past two-and-a-half years will haunt the new administration like blood sucking vampires. The Thai people, who have been awakened and are much more in tune with politics of the day, have exercised their choice. With this reset button, there is no shortcut.

This article was first published in The Nation (Thailand). Reprinted with permission.

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