published : 27 May 2017 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
Ex-Mahachon leader is optimistic in new role developing political parties, but has his work cut out for him v Bombing throws up conspiracy theories and concerns over election delay v Gen Prawit's low profile leads to concerns about his health
Change of thinking
A lot of responsibility now rests on the shoulders of former Mahachon Party leader Anek Laothamatas, with expectations running high that he will rise to the challenge of heading the panel tasked with figuring out how to reshape political parties in the name of reform.
It seems certain Mr Anek has his work cut out for him. Nonetheless he appears undaunted, confident that his optimistic outlook will prevail.
Mr Anek has been named by the Election Commission (EC) to head the committee tasked with developing political parties in tandem with national reforms.
The EC was vested with the authority to put forth Mr Anek's appointment under Section 224 of the new constitution.
With its augmented powers in the context of the recently promulgated new charter, the commission now has the direct authority to oversee the performance and undertakings of political parties to ensure they comply with the law.
The constitution also contains a stipulation on political reform that is, in a nutshell, intended to instil greater public understanding of rule by constitutional monarchy.
The Anek panel is also tasked with helping to reform the country's political situation in a manner both fruitful and effective.
Mr Anek is endowed with experience in the business of reform, having chaired the panel studying national reconciliation under the now-dissolved National Reform Council. He also advises -- and is a member of -- the national unity building committee headed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
But the idea seems to have dawned on the former leader of the Mahachon Party that the very approach to national reform itself may be in need of an overhaul, with the old mindset of officialdom cast aside.
He insisted that for reform to have any relevance, the means must justify the end; that its execution must be carried through an inclusive and informal process. And the membership line-up of the EC-appointed Anek panel reflects just that, according to political watchers.
Mr Anek was given a free hand to invite anyone he please to join the panel, and he personally extended invitations to stalwarts across the political spectrum.
The list includes: Phumtham Wechayachai, the Pheu Thai Party secretary-general; Chamni Sakdiset, deputy leader of the Democrat Party; Anuthin Charvirakul, leader of the Bhumjaithai Party; Nikorn Jamnong, adviser to the Chartthaipattana Party, and a member of the National Reform Steering Assembly; Pirun Chatwanitkul, former deputy secretary-general of the EC; and Thanet Charorenmuang, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University.
Sources say Mr Anek succeeded in wooing such political luminaries to join the panel's ranks as it made sense to collect input from those very people who are actively engaged in political affairs and who can help weigh in on what goes into the reform blueprint.
The Anek panel, it appears, has a great deal of homework to do in designing a strategy that best answers the challenges of developing political parties within the reformist framework.
The panel will also promote public awareness of political parties and heighten members' sense of belonging to, and participation with, their respective parties.
Furthermore, the panel must look at how party members can assist in keeping tabs on their political party of choice.
Mr Anek told the Bangkok Post he accepted the panel chairmanship for the simple reason that the work is constructive -- driven by opportunities rather than difficulties.
The panel does not mete out punitive action or measures.
Political parties represent the nuts and bolts of the machinery of politics; as such, they are of crucial importance. But they need streamlining from time to time in order to keep pace with change, Mr Anek said. Even communist China is run by a political party, he stressed.
Even though many Thais have lost faith in various political parties, they form an indispensable component of Thailand's march toward democracy, he said.
The panel, according to Mr Anek, is ready to come to the aid of political parties, including those that are newly formed. It will help them in a non-arbitrary and principled manner conforming to specific criteria, he said.
The parties will also be granted financial support according to what they need to sustain their operations based on suggestions from the panel, he added. The money will be drawn from the Political Parties Fund.
Mr Anek suggested his panel may be more flexible than previous government bodies or agencies.
He said previous reform efforts were less than successful because they were too tightly bound by the law, resulting in punitive action against those unable to fulfill certain reform-oriented goals.
"We don't strive for limitless power.
"We don't want anyone fawning on us or bowing their heads to us," Mr Anek said.
Yet another hold-up?
Theories, which have swirled around the latest bombing at the Phramongkutklao Hospital, have been met with "counter theories" from political actors.
In the aftermath of the Monday blast that injured 25 people outside the dispensary's waiting room, known as the Wongsuwon room, government figures, political parties and politicians have lost no time in condemning the violence, both verbally and in writing.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha quickly condemned the bombing of the army-run hospital as a gross violation of human rights, while former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij expressed his disgust at the deplorable act that jeopardised the foreign community's trust and confidence in Thailand.
Both the Democrat Party and the Pheu Thai Party, who stand on opposite ends of the political divide, were united in their condemnation of the hospital attack. First Army commander Lt Gen Apirat Kongsompong, meanwhile, poured scorn on the perpetrators who "seemed intent on damaging the nation's economy".
However, critics believed the implication of the attack may not bode well for Gen Prayut's leadership, after the premier dropped a strong suggestion that a country rocked by unrest does not make for an ideal condition for holding a general election.
Critics took the suggestion as a hint of yet another delay in holding the poll, which was a far cry from the first promise made by the National Council for Peace and Order to roll out a general election in the months after it ousted the caretaker government led by the Pheu Thai on May 22, 2014.
If there was to be any hint at another reneged promise to organise a poll, Gen Prayut stood to lose his credibility.
Sources in the security and intelligence units said a spate of bombings, which occurred only weeks apart of one another in the capital, bear the hallmarks of being the work of political elements who are government opponents.
Prior to the Phramongkutklao Hospital attack, bombs had gone off outside the Government Lottery Office on Ratchadamnoen Avenue and the National Theatre not far from it. The authorities believed the three incidents are linked although no identity of the mastermind has been released, at least not publicly. It is not even known whether law enforcement agencies have managed to identity the party in question.
The lack of progress in identifying the culprit may be owing to the absence of hard evidence, the most significant of which has to be the footage of the surveillance cameras in the bombed areas. However, it so happens that the bombers in the three incidents had chosen to launch the attacks in "security blind" spots, or where no security cameras were installed.
In the Phramongkutklao Hospital bombing, it was theorised that moles in the government had sabotaged surveillance cameras, something that presumably could have been carried out by the same group of opponents who stirred up trouble -- one of the most tragic being the explosions near CentralWorld during the 2006 countdown celebration which injured scores of mostly foreign revellers -- during the Surayud Chulanont administration.
It was part of a wave of attacks which took place during the countdown in the city.
National Legislative Assembly member Somchai Sawaengkan said he was "a million percent" convinced the Phramongkutklao Hospital blast was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the southern insurgents.
He said the insurgents typically targeted state officials and set out to cause carnage, frequently resorting to explosives.
However, he noted the Phramongkutklao Hospital attacker appeared intent mainly on discrediting the military government, rated top in opinion polls as the vanguard of national security, by inflicting injuries using an improvised bomb.
However, the theory of government opponents having a hand in the bombing was discounted by the Pheu Thai and the red shirts who also have their own assumptions up their sleeves. They accused individuals in government ranks of staging the incident to invent a pretext to justify the NCPO hanging on to power even longer.
A source in the Pheu Thai argued the risks were too high for any government opponents to even contemplate engineering such a blatantly violent act, which constitutes a severe offence punishable by asset seizure.
Fit to fight another day?
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has been noted for his absence recently due to health reasons, leading political analysts to speculate that he will have to show he is fighting fit if he harbours any ambition of joining the next government.
The deputy premier, who is reputed to have served as one of the architects of the May 22, 2014 coup that unseated the Pheu Thai Party-led administration, has devoted himself to serving as a power broker using his influence over political factions to aid the government.
But the state of Gen Prawit's health -- he is now 72 years old -- has become the subject of wild conjecture, with some questioning whether he is fit enough to remain in the cabinet.
Despite this, he has hung on to both posts and shows no sign of wanting to relinquish his demanding ministerial responsibilities anytime soon.
A source close to Gen Prawit claims the deputy prime minister is unwell and in need of some non-surgical medical treatment as well as physical rehabilitation.
He skipped Tuesday's cabinet meeting -- which was due to discuss Monday's bomb attack at Bangkok's Phramongkutklao Hospital -- with rumours swirling he was in Europe receiving treatment for Meniere's disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can cause vertigo.
One source said this has affected his ability to walk, and the deputy premier is known to have suffered a bad fall in 2015. His absence from the cabinet meeting fed speculation that he may in fact be gravely ill.
But late on Wednesday, Gen Prawit reportedly rang a Thai reporter saying he would be back at work on Thursday and that there was no cause for concern.
A government source confirmed that he was back in the capital on Thursday assigning orders and signing papers, but that no one had seen him throughout the day.
Now political analysts are closely tracking his movements and his health for any indication of a possible reshuffle that could cost him his place in the cabinet.
Yet few believe Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will relieve him of his ministerial duties unless Gen Prawit seeks to be excused from them.
Gen Prayut, 63, has made no secret of their close bond, with the prime minister said to view his older deputy as something of a "big brother".