published : 18 Nov 2017 at 03:00
newspaper section: News
Prayut's 'fresh faces' question steeped in contradictions v Regime keeps watchful eye on Pheu Thai Party as it mulls lifting the political ban v Rajabhakti Park: Pride of the army or simply a den of graft?
New talent not always good
This week marked the start of the period in which people can submit their replies to the six questions on governance posed recently by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Although the turnout on the first day was generally slow, more people visited the Damrongtham complaint centres in Bangkok and the provinces, designated as venues for answer submissions, in the following days.
Many respondents said they gave rather long answers to the question on whether more new politicians should enter politics to help break what critics have branded a cycle of old wheeler-dealer political practices.
Most respondents agreed fresh faces could serve as a beacon of hope for Thai politics. But sceptics have painted a less rosy picture of what is to come, and insisted the prime minister's question about the political stage being occupied by a new breed was steeped in contractions.
First, according to critics in the media industry, it does not follow that new faces equate to being honest and competent. Taking a lesson from recent history, some veteran members of political parties have sent their offspring, many of whom were in their early 30s, to stand in local and general elections to maintain their families' grip on power in the constituencies.
The young politicians were more or less conducting their duties as MPs under the shadow of their parents, who have taught them the tricks of the trade in national politics, critics claim.
One media analyst suggested it may be naive to entertain the thought of new political faces marching into parliament and single-handedly wiping out the status quo.
He said in the past, many parties were simply old wine in new bottles. MPs left one party for another in search of greener pastures, where financiers wield more financial might which they trust will propel them to victory in the polls.
In such cases, some young, aspiring politicians were allocated "front office" roles, which demanded their routine appearance at party press conferences, where they fluently explained and countered issues and divulged policies. However, the backstage machinations were very much at work, with the old hats pulling the strings and commanding ministerial posts.
The media analyst added politicians -- new or seasoned -- must stand on principle or not stand at all. As long as they assume their political posts under someone else's thumb, they will not find long-term success in their career regardless of how long or short they stay in office.
The analyst noted former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra only became actively involved in politics about two months before the general election in 2011 which saw the Pheu Thai Party secure a landslide win that propelled Ms Yingluck into the prime ministerial hot seat.
She was later ousted in a military coup in 2014 and found guilty this September by the Supreme Court of looking the other way while her subordinates allegedly ruined the government's rice-pledging scheme due to graft. She fled the country days before her five-year jail sentence was handed down in absentia and her whereabouts remain unknown.
Meanwhile, the analyst said Gen Prayut's six questions have created the impression he favours an infusion of new people in the running of national politics. However, he did not object, at least not openly, to the new organic law requirement that political parties must organise primary votes to select potential candidates to contest a general election.
The analyst said the primaries will not make it easy for new faces to even have a chance of being picked as MP candidates.
In the primaries, party members nominate their choices. These are then shortlisted for party executives to select MP candidates from later.
Party members in many constituencies are bound by the patronage system. They tend to prefer familiar political faces from whose acts of generosity they have benefited in the past.
Thaksin lurking in shadows
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has been showering politicians with hope that some local administrative organisations will be the first to go ahead with elections after the political activities ban is lifted, possibly in the first quarter of next year.
However, the good news "signals" are not drawing a response from the Pheu Thai Party's de facto leader-in-exile Thaksin Shinawatra, according to a party source.
As the NCPO is edging closer to the election phase of its roadmap, calls have intensified for the regime to remove the lid on politicians' activities that has kept the political pressure bottled up for more than three years since the ban was imposed at the onset of the May 2014 military coup.
Observers have said in jest that politicians were expected to greet the news of a partial lifting of the ban, by allowing local elections to be conducted possibly in the not-too-distant future, by dancing in the streets. However, no signs or gestures of jubilation have emerged so far.
The general lack of enthusiasm could be due to a warning from the NCPO that has echoed on the back of the news that the ban may be lifted. The council has made it known the ban is tied to at least one condition: Politicians must behave themselves if they wish to earn enough confidence from the regime to be allowed to return to the business of running for poll seats.
Observers say the NCPO could be closely watching the anti-coup Pheu Thai, of all parties, to see how it will react to the news. It has been assessed that the former ruling party remains strongly attached to Thaksin, whose opinions are very much valued by Pheu Thai's members and its faithful.
Pheu Thai, as do most other parties, relies heavily on local leaders to consolidate political power for their MP candidates, according to experts. A local election being permitted to be held once again should, at least in theory, be welcomed by Pheu Thai ahead of the general election tentatively set for the end of next year.
But the Pheu Thai source said no instruction has been put forward by Thaksin regarding what the party must prepare for when local polls are allowed to be organised. The former premier has made no mention of what local leader seats Pheu Thai should be aiming to capture. They could be tambon administrative organisation member posts or even the Bangkok governorship.
Concerning the latter post, Thaksin is giving some party insiders the impression he is resigned to the idea Pheu Thai would not win it if and when a governor election is given the go-ahead by the NCPO.
The source added that some party members believe Thaksin's mind may be preoccupied with designing tactical approaches for Pheu Thai to retain its electoral prowess, which would be crucial if the party is to emerge victorious in the next general election by gaining the most seats.
The source said that as Pheu Thai has no real on-the-ground leader to speak of, Thaksin still counts on his trusted political sidekick, Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, to take the reins. His confidence in the former deputy leader of the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai, and his belief that she is the strongest candidate to lead Pheu Thai, has apparently not wavered.
Khunying Sudarat may have chosen to keep herself out of the limelight after she faced a slew of criticism last month for allegedly trying to politically capitalise on a public event organised for the royal funeral of the late King in Bangkok's Lat Plakao area.
Khunying Sudarat, according to the source, has started exerting her leadership of the party by chairing meetings of its executives and telling members to correct any perceived flaws in Pheu Thai. One of these is that the party is a family-run entity which answers directly to the Shinawatras.
Military oasis falls short
More than two years after it was opened to the public in September 2015, Rajabhakti Park, the army's 1-billion-baht project to honour past Thai monarchs, has been closed since the middle of the month for 15 days of annual maintenance.
The park, home to the towering bronze statues of seven former Thai kings, is located on 222 rai in an army compound about 10km from Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin district of Prachuap Khiri Khan province. It has drawn hordes of tourists to the central province since its launch.
Intended to serve as the pride of the army, the project was initiated by the military under the leadership of former army chief Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, who is now the deputy defence minister.
The park, which found itself subjected to allegations of graft during the construction phase, consists of three core parts: An area featuring the seven statues of previous kings of Siam, a multi-purpose ground, and an exhibition building featuring the history of the seven kings.
The giant bronze statues are badly in need of maintenance as the coatings of paint applied to the surface of the statues have peeled off due to having been exposed to the elements, according to sources.
Foundries contracted to cast the statues are responsible for their upkeep under a five-year maintenance deal.
Moreover, the main base for the seven statues is said to require more structural reinforcement. Plans are afoot to excavate and drive another 30 foundation piles into the ground around the base area to provide a more solid foundation, the source said.
Observers noted that private companies should be contracted to handle the management of the park, due to the lack of professionalism on the part of rank-and file soldiers who act as guides showing visitors around.
The park has a history of taking flak due to allegations of kickbacks.
These include claims the foundries were told to pay a "commission fee" for being hired to cast the statues of the kings by an amulet trader who was invited to consult on the project.
That led to a formal petition being lodged with the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission.
The anti-graft agencies found no wrongdoing and said the park had been built in line with regulations governing budget spending.
They said the payments were transactions between private parties and were regarded as a business-based reward, as the amulet trader brought work to the foundries.
The Office of the Auditor-General said the amulet trader received a commission of 20 million baht for playing an advisory role.
The controversy also threatened Gen Udomdej's job as deputy defence minister. He said later he had nothing to do with any commission money changing hands in the project.
Recently, criticism has emerged on social media of a 15.9-million-baht project to build shops and public toilets at Rajabhakti Park.
Army chief Chalermchai Sitthisad defended the project, saying the military is ready to disclose full details to the public to counter claims of massive overspending.
Army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said the army would first gather more information from the company contracted to build the facilities. It was hired on Dec 29, according to a source.
The park falls under the care of the Rajabhakti Park Foundation, the head office of which is at the army's Infantry Centre.
The park has high daily traffic but lacks facilities to cater to visitors, which prompted the foundation to launch the project, Col Winthai said.
The new building will blend in with the landscape and include five shops and 52 toilets including some for people with physical disabilities, he said. It is due to wrap up in February, he added.
Col Winthai insisted the toilet construction had proceeded with a transparent bidding process. The budget came from donations.