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Monday, July 19, 2010
Grasping at straws
What's in a name? If you are not a close follower of Thailand's civic movements, most of the names on the two national reform committees led by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun and social reformer Prawase Wasi will not mean anything to you.
So it would be perfectly understandable if you feel these people are just tools of the Abhisit government to whitewash itself following the bloody crackdown on the red shirt movement in April and May.
May I differ?
As a journalist covering civic movements, I have seen most of these names carry with them long-standing dedication to bring about social justice. With or without the current reform committees, these people will be working to ease the plight of the weak and the poor, to eradicate prejudice and push for policy change, in the belief that their work will leave this world a little bit better than when they were born into it.
Back when Thailand was enjoying an economic boom, these people already foresaw how unregulated economic growth and corporate-led globalisation would lead to environmental destruction, social breakdown, grave disparity and political upheaval.
To prevent a catastrophe they knew would hurt the little people the most, civic and grassroots groups nationwide grew into an alliance for reform, armed with policy innovations rooted in people's real needs on the ground. One of these was the concept of community rights to have a say over local natural resources management.
No policy-maker paid any attention. But when the country was in a crisis and ripe for change following the Black May bloodshed in 1992, community rights were finally enshrined in the 1997 charter as one of the mechanisms to bring about grassroots democracy and justice.
The 1997 charter was called the People's Charter because it was not a top-down mandate, but a bottom-up initiative from civil society mobilisation nationwide, to empower local communities in the face of centralised bureaucracy, top-down policies and big business. At the centre of the civil society movement at that time was Prof Prawase Wasi.
Now tasked with another reform mission, will his committee - together with a group of social think-tanks led by Mr Anand - be able to usher in reform? Can the medicine they prescribe cure this seemingly terminally sick system?
Amid the fiercely divisive politics, I admire their courage to brave through harsh criticism that they are merely legitimising a government with blood on its hands.
I believe in their sincerity to chart the future for Thailand. Yet I have little hope.
Undoubtedly, both committees will be able to produce innovative ideas to unlock structural injustice. But didn't we have the best possible charter to do just that before? We must ask why it has failed.
On paper, people have the constitutional right to sponsor their own laws. But what is the point when the Council of State can freely change the draft bill to preserve bureaucratic power?
Local communities have the constitutional right to say no to top-down development projects that hurt their way of life and environment. Yet it is still business as usual: big trawlers plunder the coastal seas, factories pollute the waterways, politicians push for destructive mega projects, and bureaucrats support big business without concern for the little people.
Respect for cultural pluralism is enshrined in the charter. Yet the education system continues perpetuating ethnic prejudice. Nationalism rooted in racism remains unquestioned. The hill peoples, the ethnic Malay Muslims, the migrant workers and refugees - all face persecution because they are seen as "outsiders".
Evidently, it is not enough to have policy innovations from civil society and the political will to effect change. Any innovative ideas will hit a brick wall when state bureaucracy is still feudal at heart. And deeply corrupt.
Hopes were high for the people's charter. But the bureaucracy still prevailed despite the spirited and united people's movements.
With the deep political divide in the people's movements now, the government's legitimacy in crisis, and the lack of bureaucratic reform, I fear that autocratic officialdom will again have the last laugh.
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