A govt hurling pebbles at the sky

A govt hurling pebbles at the sky

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha presides over a government meeting on the Covid-19 outbreak at Government House on March 4. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha presides over a government meeting on the Covid-19 outbreak at Government House on March 4. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

Enough with the "gestures", already. The trials and tribulations of the Prayut Chan-o-cha government (to quarantine or not to quarantine?) are being brought to us in real-time by a dizzying news cycle.

In uncoordinated motioning (that trumps even the opposition's disunity in the face of the parliamentary censure vote), the Public Health Ministry, Gen Prayut and various cabinet members are issuing new measures round the clock to curb the spread of Covid-19 -- only with the tactical savvy of a man hurling pebbles at the sky.

Proposed moves, such as the Finance Ministry's now discarded cash handouts, may come across as familiar. In fact, they're not so different from other resolutions adopted in the past months (Chim, Shop, Chai -- I'm looking at you), as the cabinet sought to tackle pressing matters, from the country's tumbling economy to worrisome air pollution levels.

Granted, there's been a lot to handle, especially for a certain short-tempered general who repeatedly said over the past six years that he doesn't wish to remain in power, yet still hasn't located the exit door. But decisions, either to inspect factories at the height of the PM2.5 air pollution crisis or belatedly require tourists travelling from high-risk countries to be quarantined, seemed as though they belonged in the thirty-seconds-to-impact category.

The poor government response to the virus outbreak will cost us money and perhaps even lives, and is symptomatic of a greater disease crippling Thailand.

Having relied for nearly five years on Section 44 of his interim charter, Gen Prayut and his former military government apparently became accustomed to band-aid-like solutions the law allowed them to whip out of a magic hat. Issue orders here, revoke them hours later there.

His current administration seems to find it hard to do away with that habit as recently shown in its management of the Covid-19 crisis. Not only are most half-baked "fixes" ineffective, they fail to address problems' root causes -- like prescribing daily doses of paracetamol to a cancer patient.

Spoiler alert: such day-to-day measures don't build resilience. Instead, they keep many Thai people in a dependent state, hooked on analgaesics. Take the government's announcement that it will control the nationwide masks stock and sell articles, not only to hospitals but also retailers, through the Commerce Ministry's Internal Trade Department.

Of course, we expect ministers to issue policies that ensure fair distribution of supplies and keep price surges in check. But jumping straight into the market and taking up the middleman's role seems redundant, even shady, as well as a waste of energy and resources.

In contrast, the disbanded Future Forward Party launched a web page early last month relying on crowdsourcing methods that allow users to locate the nearest pharmacy dispensing masks and alcohol gel. This type of initiative, mobilising over a thousand individuals into sharing information, couldn't be more different in its approach from a single parliament member from the government camp handing out the same articles to constituents. Crowdsourcing is a strategy that ought to be promoted and fostered, if only we were to let go of paternalistic leadership.

Ineptitude aside, it's an inflated and misplaced sense of self-importance that often seems to be connecting government decisions. When Gen Prayut first announced last Wednesday that, were they required, military facilities would be used to quarantine Thai workers returning from South Korea, he couldn't help but conclude with the following remark: "If you can't think of anything, just ask the army."

Is the Thai army granting Thai people a favour? The joke must be on me, since -- for a minute -- I thought it was merely performing its duty.

The sentence itself isn't shocking (it sounds rather like a not-so-smooth advertisement for the armed forces), nor is the proposition off-target. In fact, a number of people voiced such demands after the first wave of Thai returnees were allowed to roam free. No, the comment remains disquieting because this isn't the first time Gen Prayut has tried to pass key elements of his job off as magnanimity. That the army functions thanks to taxpayers' money seems to escape the general entirely.

Moreover, it's clear that he hasn't made progress in understanding his role as premier, despite serving for half a decade. He simply isn't owed gratitude over completing tasks, no more than he is owed obedience.

The reaction to the Covid-19 spread is just another example of what we get on a regular basis: quick-fixes and the counting of so-called favours. The former neither seeks to empower people nor challenge the status quo. The latter sees strongmen and powerful businesses sweep in and charitably pass Tylenol around for ills they wouldn't cure in the first place. Rather than targeted economic measures, we get poorly-defined handouts. Rather than agricultural and land reforms, in hand with the breaking up of monopolies, we get 120,000 trees donated by CP Group. Rather than freedom of expression, we're promised open-days at the Thai Khu Fah building with the slogan "Got a problem? Consult the PM".

We demand actions but are only given gestures. But as the crises accumulate, these gestures begin to look like no more than gesticulations.

Ariane Sutthavong

Former features writer

Ariane Sutthavong is a former features writer for the Bangkok Post.


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