Government's competence in question
It's just about official. Despite having a government, Thailand is rudderless. Approaching six years under more or less junta rule and military influence, irrespective of an election last year, this once up-and-coming country has degenerated into an authoritarian-bureaucratic state that is unsuited and unfit to address public grievances and demands of the 21st century. Yet Thailand's biggest problem is that this government, a motley coalition propped up by a crooked constitution and led by former junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, intends to stay for the long haul despite its growing incompetence. Unless the Thai people's world-famous patience and tolerance are boundless, political tensions will likely mount in the foreseeable future.
While the haze crisis in recent weeks revolving around PM2.5 pollution around the country has dominated news headlines, Thailand's myriad unanswered challenges and sagging and stagnating conditions and prospects have long been evident. Wherever we look, there is a lack of a broader outlook and long-term vision for where Thailand should be heading. Gen Prayut does not lead the government of the day; he is running a "day government", just getting by and surviving through knee-jerk, piecemeal measures on a daily basis.
As economic growth has slowed on the back of an export slump and persistent baht strength, Prime Minister Prayut, a military man and self-appointed head of the economic team, has no answer. He also somehow does not want to replace what is clearly a tired and spent economic and foreign policy team around him. Not long ago, the Prayut-led government touted the potential of the Eastern Economic Corridor and Thailand 4.0 growth strategy. These forward-looking projects have lost steam, now peddled by bureaucrats in line ministries and related agencies.
Weather and water provide the most damning evidence of government ineptitude. Drought has stricken the northeast. Upstream dams in China and Laos, compounded by the lack of rainfall, have dried up the Mekong River in several Thai provinces downstream. Water levels in Thailand's major central region dams have receded alarmingly. Sea water also has seeped into the Chao Phraya River, from which much of our tap water is processed and distributed. The knock-on effects for agricultural production and overall well-being of people are portentous.
The prime minister's facile answer to the salty tap water is to simply boil it, which kills germs but does not solve the saltiness problem. On the drought, the government does not have a systematic answer, effectively leaving it to nature and the hope that the monsoon season will arrive in time. Living in Thailand will soon have to rely on fate and faith, not leadership and government performance.
Just this week, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration decided to close the 437 schools under its supervision owing to poor air quality and unhealthy PM2.5 levels. The BMA then re-opened these schools just as the Education Ministry ordered Bangkok-area schools to close yesterday and today, issuing its directive on Wednesday.
While the two agencies went in the opposite direction, the Education Ministry did not cite any kind of uniformed criteria on when to close or open schools. It just did it arbitrarily and abruptly. If the smog persists at the same or higher level in future days, will schools be closed again? There are no plans or strategies for home-learning to offset the days off from schools. Unsurprisingly, following Gen Prayut's firing of the former governor who was elected by Bangkokians, the BMA is headed by a government-appointed former police officer with no experience in running a city. He is infrequently seen in public and has not shown much accountability. The education minister happens to be a former protest leader of the Democrat Party who led the ouster of the previously elected government and basically just took over power behind the pro-Prayut Palang Pracharath Party. If they are going to take power this way, they should at least try to be competent and show some accountability.
To be sure, the prime minister's response to PM2.5 pollution is similarly myopic, essentially telling people to put up with it and fend for themselves. Gen Prayut attributes the stuffy smog in Thailand's urban areas to vehicle exhaust fumes, even specifying they are the culprit for 72% of the pollution. His immediate answer is to tackle vehicle congestion, even though he has been in office for nearly six years while the air quality problem developed into a full-blown crisis.
But if the authorities take a look at the map of air quality indices around the region, they will see that unhealthy air quality blankets most parts of inner Asia. Mongolia and parts of China and India are beset by pollution levels more than double of Thailand's, reaching dangerous levels in the 300s and 400s, as opposed to 100-200 around our regional neighbourhood. The maritime countries, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore have registered half the levels of Thailand's air quality index, thanks no doubt to breezy conditions there. Metro Manila and Jakarta, where traffic gridlock is comparable to Thailand if not worse, have suffered much lower levels than Bangkok.
The source of the region-wide smog in the Asian landmass is more likely the slash-and-burn of agricultural land. Vehicle exhaust should still be reduced over the long term with effective incentives but more data and an evidence-based approach is needed to alleviate poor air quality conditions.
Beyond economic doldrums, drought, water management, and pollution, the prime minister is facing all kinds of challenges that have exposed his lack of qualifications for the job. Gen Prayut is prone to tough-talking blustery and badgering of critics and detractors, but he is increasingly seen as out of his depth, bluffing his way here and there day by day. It is only a matter of time when his bluff will be called.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.