No safe spaces in our faux democracy
As Asean chair, a Thailand governed by an "elected government" should have been well-suited to hosting meetings between governments and people from the region, and allowing those suppressed in their home countries to voice their plight and needs here.
But the Thai government's recent handling of the co-organisation of the Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean People's Forum (ACSC/APF) last week speaks volumes about Thailand's faux democracy and ongoing suppression of free speech. How much civic participation can we expect in Asean meetings under Thai chairmanship?
The ACSC/APF should have been a platform for communication and collaboration between governments and their people in the region to drive forward Asean issues with an emphasis on "people-centric" partnerships.
But representatives from civil society groups from across 10 Asean nations were disappointed with the organisation of the forum mainly because of what appeared to be interference and censorship by the Thai government and its security officials. In particular, they railed at attempts to suppress freedom of expression before the event had even started.
The ACSC/APF is an annual gathering of civil society organisations held in parallel with the Asean Summit in the country that holds the chairmanship. It aimed to collect opinions from civil society representatives to make recommendations to Asean leaders at the summit to be held in Thailand in November.
Initially, the Thai government pledged to provide financial and logistical support for the organisation of the civil society forum this year and be a co-organiser to facilitate collaboration between civil society groups and the government sector.
However, prior to the Sept 10-12 gathering planned, the organiser was put in an awkward situation when Ministry of Social Development and Human Security officials, a major sponsor of the event, and security officers requested a name list of all participants.
The request could not be fulfilled. The forum is supposed to be a safe space and many participants did not want to make their presence known to their governments. So it would have been impossible for the organiser to provide the list. Many participants are activists and human rights defenders who have been the targets of persecution or on state blacklists. Exposing their identities would mean a risk of persecution upon returning home.
The demand forced the civil society groups to quit the plan to co-host the event with the Thai government.
They decided to fund the event out of their own pockets and changed the venue from a decent hotel in Bangkok's Pratunam area to Thammasat University Convention Centre on the outskirts of Bangkok. The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, however, continued to hold its own Asean civil society forum in parallel with the ACSC/APF.
The state's intervention last week was a shame for the country, especially since the Thai government has come up with the "Partnership for Sustainability" vision under its chairmanship.
Joined by over 800 people, the ACSC/APF brought up many challenges faced by the Asean community, including the lack of accountability in transboundary investment, human rights violations, energy inefficiency, discrimination against indigenous people, threats against youth activists and declining democracy in many "democratic" Asean nations.
These are the issues that hold back the actual capacity of the region to ensure fair economic distribution, a just society and better the quality of life for the people.
Instead, the Thai government's "partnership for sustainability" merely translated into hostility towards the participants of the forum.
It reflects what has happened in Thailand when it comes to freedom of expression. After the March 24 general election, the country is run by a new government with a strong presence of former military leaders from the previous coup-installed regime. It is a faux democracy that is intolerant to criticism from the people.
Even though the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order has revoked many of its earlier orders that strictly restricted people's liberty, suppression of freedom of expression still exists in many forms.
For instance, security officials have interfered in the management of government offices and educational institutions when it comes to the organisation of civil society forums. They have also exerted pressure on activists to tone down their messages or cancel their events.
Early this month, Khon Kaen University reversed its decision to allow the Future Forward Party to use its venue for a seminar entitled "New Consensus Thailand" which is part of a new movement calling for amendments to the 2017 constitution. The cancellation came at short notice, prompting speculation that the campus acted on a request from government officials.
According to iLaw, an NGO monitoring human rights and democracy, at least 200 planned activities have been withdrawn due to cancellations by state-run venues over the past five years.
Some event organisers were pressured or threatened by security officers who demanded they scale down their activities, change the topics or share the names of participants with them.
This kind of intervention and suppression has caused wide-ranging impacts. It has destroyed people's trust in the state and undermined solidarity and collaboration between the government and civil society.
Historically, the level of collaboration between the government sector and civil society is varied among Asean countries.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, the ruling elites and the people have built up a broad collaboration in the post-colonial period. But market exploitation by the ruling class and corrupt governments have weakened such partnerships.
The People's Action Party in Singapore, though inclining to authoritarianism, has built up a long-term partnership with the people through social programmes including home financing and education subsidies -- which in return has helped the country boost productivity and its economy.
In contrast, collaboration between the state and people in Thailand has been shattered due to political polarisation and increasing inequality. Thai politics remains steeped in clientelism that sustains close ties between government officials and big businesses.
What happened at the ACSC/APF last week is a reminder of the failure of Thai dictator-style government to provide a "safe zone" for people to discuss important matters in an open and straightforward manner.
The government must stop interfering and suppressing civil society's activities and stop citing security concerns as a justification. Otherwise, a window will be closed on the state and people building the long-run partnership necessary for advancing both the economy and society.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.