Poll without people power holds no promise
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Poll without people power holds no promise

The military conducted a strategic retreat when P-Move came to Bangkok, not to make new demands, but to force state authorities to fulfil old promises. (Reuters photo)
The military conducted a strategic retreat when P-Move came to Bangkok, not to make new demands, but to force state authorities to fulfil old promises. (Reuters photo)

After four years of heavy-handed repression, why has the military government suddenly softened its stance with grassroots and civil society movements? The answer is in the front-page photo of every newspaper on Tuesday.

Looking triumphant in the packed sports stadium in Buri Ram, Prime Minister and junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha was busy wooing support from the Buri Ram kingpin and former leader of the Bhumjaithai Party as he showered the locals with development budget promises.

No matter how you look at it, it was a campaign trail funded by taxpayers.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

While other political parties are prohibited from engaging in political campaigns, the government machine is in full swing to help the general win the numbers game in the general election next year.

To salvage its plummeting popularity when election fever is in the air, the military government apparently feels the need to avoid outright confrontation. Hence, its strategic retreat when the fearless in Chiang Mai shouted "no" to the judiciary's scandalous housing project at Doi Suthep and when the landless across the country took to the streets in Bangkok to demand land security and end violent evictions.

Both movements should be applauded for their fortitude and commitment. But one thing is clear: Theirs are only small wins in a long, big battle against the centralised officialdom under the protective arm of the army.

As experienced countless times before by P-Move, a network of landless farmers and forest poor, any promises from any governments easily become empty when state agencies refuse to budge. Actually, P-Move is in Bangkok this time not to make new demands, but to force state authorities to fulfil old promises.

For instance, the state pledge for community land ownership, or chanot chum chon in Thai.

Following decades of land rights conflicts, P-Move's community land ownership proposal was adopted by the Abhisit government in 2010. As part of a pilot project, some 50 long-existing communities with strong records of forest conservation, were promised land security, under communal oversight, in exchange for ecological farming. The land is prohibited from being sold.

The forest authorities were fiercely resistant to this scheme, seeing it as a challenge to their sole control of forest land. To their delight, the Yingluck government was unwilling to continue what was considered the Abhisit administration's policy.

The 2014 coup spelled its death sentence. Under the military regime's Reclaiming the Forest policy, forest authorities have gleefully recruited troops to evict the forest communities. Those in the P-Move's chanot chum chon project, treated as arch enemies of forest officials, are the main target of violent crackdowns.

Meanwhile, the Land Bank scheme to help the landless has been distorted. Instead of being an independent agency funded by a progressive land tax, it is on its way to becoming just another state agency unresponsive to the needs of the landless.

Apart from ending the crackdown on the forest poor, one of the main demands of P-Move during its current street demonstrations is to continue the community land ownership scheme, get the Land Bank back in the right direction, and push for a progressive land tax to bridge the country's gross land disparity.

Given the regime's order, the mandarins are forced to sit at the negotiating table with leaders of the forest poor once again. Both parties know, however, that the truce is only temporary.

Even so, it would be wise for the Doi Suthep movement, a primarily middle-class exercise, to learn from the P-Move farmers. The battle ahead with officialdom is long and arduous. It's useful to know how to beat the mandarins' foot dragging through the endless maze of committee, sub-committee and sub-sub-committee meetings that lead nowhere.

With its popularity nosing down, the regime feels the need to avoid outright confrontation with civic groups, without empowering them or tackling inequality. BANGKOK POST GRAPHICS

Despite recent wins from civic and grassroots groups, I am not the only one who sees little hope ahead for the country. Not when the regime has a mindset of continuing its rule for as long as it can. Not when the power structure deeply rooted in traditional patronage and double standards remains intact. Not when political and administrative centralisation still denies people the right to self government, the management of local natural resources, and the protection of human security. Not when freedom of expression is silenced and harshly punished.

Despite so much potential, our country is being dragged down the drain by old men in uniforms and their outdated views of the world, stubbornly refusing to leave the stage when their time is over.

The regime is relying on the bureaucracy to keep people under control, which has emboldened state authorities to reassert repressive power. The forest poor and the landless are not the only groups suffering. We all are, including our children and our environment.

For starters, the Agriculture Department is firmly against a ban on toxic chemical pesticides and herbicides. Despite clear health hazards, they are determined to protect the farm chemical industry, not the benefits of taxpayers who pay their salaries. The Public Health Ministry is also determined to control the universal healthcare budget and make patients pay part of the medical costs. These moves will seriously affect more than 48 million people.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry continues to poison young minds with ultra-nationalism, ethnic prejudice, and authoritarianism, while dismissing calls for education reform.

As a result, the education system is not only holding back the country from being competitive in the international arena, it is also endorsing state repression and perpetuating social injustice and inequality.

Over the weekend, hundreds of parents and educators, and education reform advocates gathered in Bangkok to call for education decentralisation and reform. They have been repeating the same message for the past two decades. Yet, the Education Ministry keeps clinging to power, never mind the suffering it is causing the children, the parents, and the country.

Don't be misled by the current absence of street politics. This is only the calm before the storm. The regime's strategic retreat may stem public fury that might spoil the premier's political campaign photo-ops for now, but it won't last long. What the military regime is doing now is not much different from what military dictators in the 1960s and 1970s did. To prolong power through the guise of electoral democracy, they set up proxy political parties, fixed the charter, co-opted political parties to support an "outsider" prime minister, and looked down on the people.

Those efforts did not end well. Why would the current political charade end differently?

High political stakes in the country's top echelons make ways for renewed violence, which may be worse than the past due to deep political divisions, the widening rich-poor gap, and the absence of moral authority to rein in the clashes. And whoever the winners are, change won't benefit the country and ordinary people short of political decentralisation and education reform.

Of course, things don't have to be that way. Not if the powers-that-be respect people's voices and put people first. We know it's unlikely.

The premier's recent disparagement of the landless as freeloaders shows his contempt for the poor and lack of understanding about social injustice and inequality. With concerted efforts to prolong military rule, there are plenty of reasons to fear for the worst.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor. She writes on human rights, gender and Thai Buddhism.

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