Govt continues to exploit pandemic

Govt continues to exploit pandemic

Local elections have been put on hold since the 2014 coup. The government appears to want a further delay, citing the Covid-19 pandemic impact.  Bangkok Post photo
Local elections have been put on hold since the 2014 coup. The government appears to want a further delay, citing the Covid-19 pandemic impact.  Bangkok Post photo

While we dread the novel coronavirus and wish it would go away, the government is prolonging the Covid-19 pandemic scare to strengthen its iron grip on the country.

No need to deny it. Thailand has been relatively free of local infections for weeks. The curfew has also been lifted, albeit belatedly. Yet the government still keeps the country under the state of emergency, insisting it is a necessary tool to keep the virus under control.

Nonsense. It is the populace that the government wants to control, not the virus.

Why pretend to care for the common good? The excessively strict city lockdown amid low infection rates and the long-delayed easing of the restrictions have destroyed the economy and plunged the majority of Thais into hardship. No one at the helm of power seems to care.

Everyone knows it -- the government needs the emergency law as a handy tool to suppress dissent.

Protests are prohibited. People in peaceful gatherings voicing concerns over human rights violations and environmental offences are met with arrests, threats and intimidation because, more often than not, the state is the perpetrator itself.

The latest abuse concerns the arrest warrants of human rights activists for taking to the street to demand a quick investigation into the abduction and possible murder of government critic Wanchalearm Satsaksit while he was in political exile in Cambodia.

The government's utter indifference to Mr Wanchalerm's enforced disappearance prompted the protest. The activists' message was simple: Take action. The government must fulfil its duty to protect the rights of Thais.

Yet they face arrest all the same. So much for the state "caring" about Thai citizens.

We have seen similar political abuse of the pandemic via the emergency decree since day one. Now ever more confident in its total control, the government's attempts to exploit the pandemic have become increasingly brazen.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam dropped a bombshell by saying there would be no local elections this year as earlier planned because there was no money to do it.

The government did not only betray its promise to allow the return of local elections after freezing them for six years since the coup, it also unabashedly blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for exhausting the central budget for the elections.

This is a lame excuse.

With intense frustration with the government on the ground, local elections will stir up a hornets nest and hand more victories to its political opponents. Certainly, the government does not want to repeat its former nightmare with the now-crushed Future Forward Party.

Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paojinda, meanwhile, explained the no-elections decision away as a mere "delay" to meet bureaucratic requirements. It is no secret, however, that the main opponent of administrative decentralisation in Thailand is the Interior Ministry which refuses to let go of centralisation and budgetary power.

Amid the public uproar, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said he would "try" to organise local elections before year-end. But he made it clear that he has the sole power to decide where and which level of local elections would be allowed.

Such total control. Such outright disdain for democracy. The emergency decree makes it possible. It's why the government could not end it.

On Tuesday, however, the government's scapegoating of the pandemic became a farce. The Election Commission has announced it has the money ready for local elections and is only waiting for the green light from the government. Does this mean the no-money excuse was a lie?

Equally alarming, if not more, is the mandarins' big rush to make money from the 400-billion baht economic recovery scheme. With zero transparency, we can predict what will happen in the corruption-ridden system.

Already we are seeing hands busily scrambling for the biggest pieces possible from the 400-billion-baht pie.

So far, the government has received proposals from all ministries worth over 800 billion baht, or twice higher than the budget. The projects from all state agencies mainly involve construction projects.

We all know where the money will go.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the country's gross inequalities and the bureaucratic inefficiency. It is urgent to fix the system to cope with future crises. Yet it remains business as usual for the officialdom.

Critics have voiced concerns about officialdom's splurge on public loans which put taxpayers deep in debt but low in employment generation and high on corruption potential.

They similarly called for transparency and people's participation so taxpayers' money is maximised to serve real needs on the ground.

Not that Thailand has never done it before. After the 1997 economic meltdown, the government set up the Social Investment Fund as an experiment in a bottom-up proposal and funding system. Local communities were required to get organised and come up with the projects of their choice with clear implementation phases and accountability mechanisms.

This bottom-up system answers local needs and empowers communities for future collaborations. But this alternative funding mechanism was dropped right after the scheme ended because the top-down bureaucracy does not want to change.

One of the arguments against local governments is they are ridden with corruption, that if we expand decentralisation, corruption will only grow in the grassroots level more extensively.

This argument is absurd and contemptuous of people in the provinces.

The crux of the problem is the lack of transparency and accountability, not decentralisation. This is why the centralised officialdom is ridden with corruption.

At the local levels, transparency is actually much easier than in the centralised state agencies. Not because people are more decent, but because the village system makes it easier to have checks and balances.

I reached this conclusion a long time ago when frequent upcountry trips were part of my work in my younger days. The election of village heads and kamnans ran by the Interior Ministry often divided communities, fostered corruption, and stoked political rivalries. Some communities tackled the problems with town hall meetings and opened their budget allocation meetings to the public to restore old unity.

It's simple. When budget allocations are transparent, corruption is nearly impossible. "So no village heads or kamnans want to stay very long in their positions," one kamnan in Songkhla told me.

Here's the problem. When this initiative is not institutionalised, it could not function very long in the face of heavy pressures from political parties and the mandarins.

The problematic 400-billion baht economic recovery scheme is part of the government's 1 trillion-baht in public loans to tackle the pandemic fallout. It is distressing to think everyone in the country must pay for this huge amount of loans only to see it wasted by an inefficient bureaucracy and much of it ending up in someone's bank accounts. That's not all. Many projects destroy the environment and the locals' way of life.

Civil society groups are calling for the use of this 1 trillion in loans to tackle disparity and poverty through direct financial subsidies across the board or use them as seed money to expand the social safety net system.

After all, it's the people's money.

They also want to put a stop to hasty project approvals to increase transparency with checks and balances through community participation.

After all, it's the people's money.

For sure, the mandarins will say no to those demands and cite bureaucratic necessity to use up the loans within the official budget year. If people want to raise hell, then they do so at their own risk, thanks to the emergency decree.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic lays bare the country's distressing disparity and bureaucratic weaknesses, many hope it will prompt national soul-searching and trigger bureaucratic reform. Admit it. That hope is only a pipe dream.

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

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

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

Do you like the content of this article?