Public can deal with the truth

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has somewhat ironically revealed a major failing of government, specifically her own.

Last Friday, the premier called an urgent cabinet meeting at Government House. The subject was the heavy criticism being heaped on her administration in recent days and weeks.

According to a source who attended the meeting, an angry Ms Yingluck said she felt cornered by the critics, and ordered the ministers to do something about it.

The prime minister said she wanted a better public relations campaign from all ministries. She chided the ministers for ineffective PR.

Government spokesman Teerat Ratanasevi confirmed Ms Yingluck ordered specific ministers to carry out PR campaigns. She is thus showing, two years into her administration, the same naivete and thin skin as her brother Thaksin, another convert from business circles to public service.

The Shinawatra twosome worked most of their lives behind corporate doors. There, they could shut out noise from critics, and ignore the relatively few people who noisily disagreed with their business decisions.

Political life at the top is an entirely different existence. In the rather unfortunate words of the prime minister, according to her spokesman: "I always face fierce criticism alone. No one comes to my rescue. I am savagely attacked alone." Just 30% of media reports about her are positive, she said.

Welcome to national politics, Ms Yingluck. And yet, much of what she told the ministers at Friday's meeting is true. The government does a terrible job of letting the public know what it is doing. The work of the government in every important field lacks transparency.

Entirely by accident, the premier hit precisely on one of the biggest failings across her entire government _ a lack of openness.

Faced with government secrecy, large segments of the public will always assume the leaders are trying to protect themselves. Unable to get the facts, the media always and correctly will blame those at the very top of the chain of command for withholding information.

The subject of the rice-purchase programme serves as a perfect example. How much rice has been bought and sold? The ministers responsible claim it is a secret. The premier complained it is so secret that even she doesn't know.

The report last week by Moody's Investors Service was criticised by the government as untrue, yet no minister could, or would, say why. The same holds true for a whole range of important, public issues. The government plans to borrow 2 trillion baht, but cannot or will not say how it will be spent. The contracts for the 350-billion-baht anti-flood projects are still secret. Ms Yingluck still has not replied to an order from the Ombudsman to explain how her law-breaking, fugitive brother obtained a passport. And so on.

The big surprise, surely, is that the prime minister is upset because she is criticised. As the top politician, her job is to manage what she calls "public relations" and the rest of us call the facts about her government. It is true, as she says, that PR is passive. It also is short on facts. These are the actions of a defensive government, uncertain of its policies and unwilling to inform the public.

It's noteworthy that in her upbraiding of cabinet ministers last Friday, she included Justice Minister Pracha Promnok, who apparently has not done enough to monitor the media. Some might call that an intimidation upgrade.