Change will only come from the bottom up
Constant threats of violence from the divisive, colour-coded politics. Endless bloodshed in the restive South. Fierce resistance against decentralisation from officialdom. Politicians of all shades paying lip service to political reform. An authoritarian education system. Explosive popular resentment against disparity and social injustice.
Is there any hope for Thailand when faced with those odds?
However, Chartwat Ruamsook does not waste any time dwelling on that question. He is too busy making real change happen in his home province of Amnat Charoen.
"Change starts when we start being active citizens," said the community leader.
"When we come together to analyse our problems, to identify the causes, the solutions, what kind of community and our province we would like to see, what future we want to give to our children, then we can set up joint action plans and rules to start working together. When that happens, then nothing can stop us.
"This is grassroots democracy. It's not about power changing hands at the top. It's about people taking charge of their lives. This kind of democracy will solve not only local problems, but also our country's."
Chartwat is not alone in the civic movements for decentralisation which are spreading across the country, a sign of hope for Thailand despite the endless bad news in national politics.
For more than a decade, Chartwat has been working with like minds to sensitise residents of Amnat Charoen to rethink their problems and their roles to try to change their situations instead of being on the receiving end of top-down policies.
Town hall-style meetings have since become a fixture in communities across the province so that shared problems can be discussed. Among them: Low rice prices, indebtedness, health problems from farm chemicals, the school system that makes the children look down on parents and local culture, destructive development, degraded natural environment, high costs of living, exploitation from the middlemen.
They are the same problems suffered by the rest of the country. So is the red-yellow divide.
"But when we focus on our shared problems, shared goals and the need to work together, the colour difference is no longer important," he explained.
On Feb 13, nearly 15,000 people turned up at the city hall to declare their Amnat Charoen Charter for governance by the people's agenda.
The first of its kind, the charter specifies the blueprints on local governance, social welfare, education, ecological farming, the environment, and access to information on policies that affect their community.
"Our charter is not a set of laws to force people to obey," said Chartwat. "It's our shared visions and community rules for us to abide by in our work to create well-being for people in Amnat Charoen."
For example, village councils are responsible for setting up development plans from bottom up. Public hearings will be carried out up to the district and provincial levels.
The final development plan for Amnat Charoen will then be presented to the governor to comply with the will of the people.
"If people are strong and work together, they will create a social force so powerful that politicians and officials cannot deny it. We therefore must empower people first."
His conclusion came after successive disappointments with many progressive laws which have failed to result in changes.
"It's because those laws still entrust power in the top-down officialdom. And the laws can be distorted when people remain passive.
"We then have to change strategies. We must empower people first. With the law to support our work or not, if we insist in implementing our development plans ourselves, change will happen anyway and it will grow, until there must be a law to recognise it."
Political violence and coups cannot change Thailand because power is still concentrated at the top, he said. Nor any high-minded laws, even constitutions, when the majority remain passive.
"But we can change Thailand at the core if the locals realise their power, that state policies must support their agenda and their well-being.
"This requires much hard work on the ground, and much stamina against difficulties. But it is the only way real change can take place."
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Assistant Editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.