Reform must be open to all

Reform must be open to all

News that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has decided to free Veera Somkhwamkid, leader of the Thai Patriots Network, and seven other members of an energy policy reform group, without pressing any charges against them, is welcome.

The eight activists were arrested by police on Sunday for staging a protest march against energy policy and violating martial law. The order to arrest them was made by Pol Maj Gen Amnuay Nimmano, deputy commissioner of the Police Education Bureau, currently in charge of security affairs and peace maintenance in Bangkok.

Last week in Hat Yai, a handful of activists from the energy policy reform network were arrested as they embarked on a 950km march to Bangkok to raise public awareness of their demand for changes to national energy policy.

They were held in military custody for five days before being released.

The group was allowed to continue the march on the condition that they must end it at 5pm each day and no public forums or public speeches were carried out throughout the walking protest.

Thanks to openness on the part of the NCPO, Mr Veera and his associates were released so they could join academics, government officials and energy activists in a public forum yesterday to discuss energy issues.

One hopes the group of experts will seize this opportunity to present its views and rationale for energy policy changes to the public.

It is regrettable that former senator Rosana Tositrakul, a vocal critic of the PTT Public Company who claims current energy policy favours the oil and gas giant, could not attend the public discussion. She explained she had an appointment which could not be cancelled at such short notice.

The release of Mr Veera and other energy activists came a day after NCPO chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the junta will only use the special powers vested upon them by martial law and the interim constitution when necessary for the sake of national security.

This important message about the use of special powers must be conveyed through the chain of command down to the field officers who are the ones who enforce martial law.

Clampdowns on free expression such as public gatherings which, by their nature, do not pose any security threat but merely voice grievances to get the attention of the powers that be, should be carried out with greater discretion and prudence, or avoided altogether.

The arrests of Mr Veera and associates in Bangkok, and of members of the energy policy reform network in Hat Yai, are examples of a bad decision which backfired on the NCPO and, in particular, Gen Prayuth himself.

A person can be incarcerated. But a prison cannot lock up the free spirit of a man or woman. And there are many, many more people like these energy activists who yearn for the basic right to free expression, even if there is now no constitution which guarantees them this right.

Reform is on the national agenda. But it cannot happen within a closed system. It cannot be limited to the work of the National Reform Council.

The NCPO must recognise the rights of civil and grassroots groups to have genuine input, not only on energy policy, but in all sectors of reform. 

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