Simple words alone cannot lead a country

Simple words alone cannot lead a country

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's answer to the problem of pricey limes alone appears insightful enough to sink all hopes for the country's reform and future.

After more than six months in office, the premier appears to have completed his transformation from a rather reticent army chief to a government leader who shoots from the hip, verbally.

Lists of his colourful quotes have been compiled. Female tourists in bikinis; selling rubber on Mars; or throwing a podium at reporters. The list is long and still growing.

Just Monday, the PM insisted that Thailand is 99.99% democratic. He also said he did not overthrow democracy.

As for martial law - which not only bars freedom of expression and assembly, but also allows authorities to detain people without charge - PM Prayut said it is necessary to prevent a deterioration of public order.

On the surface, PM Prayut's often off-the-cuff remarks about the country's problems and how he would tackle them are entertaining.

The PM's words are sharp and fresh, and clearly not scripted. They often leave people awestruck, sometimes by his honesty, but more frequently by his attitude.

Few people would doubt PM Prayut's sincerity, however - even in his gaffes.

The PM's diversions may provide temporary relief in this drab and repressive time of 99.99% democracy. But when we look closely and see where the hilarity comes from,  the amusement could quickly give way to a sense of gloom at the quality of Thailand's leadership.

What future awaits us at the end of this black comedy? One can only imagine with dread.

The military government has talked up big plans for Thailand.

It has declared a war on corruption - which has made some bureaucrats feel so scared they have stopped disbursing the national budget altogether.

The delay means not enough money has been injected into the economic system, exacerbating the economic downturn.

If the impact had not been so harsh on ordinary people, this could sound like a comedy of errors, but people are more likely to cry than laugh. 

The government also promised a wide ranging series of reforms and an ambitious shift in the country's growth strategy, from a manufacturing and export-led economy to a digital one.

These are monumental, nation-building tasks that require not just far-sighted vision and strong leadership but also lots of inspiration and innovation.

After half a year of listening to the PM's speeches, laments and tirades, I wonder where the military government will find the qualities and resources necessary to push through these ambitious reforms and lay down a new foundation for the country's future.

The PM's pricey lime response does not help.

Speaking to reporters last week, Gen Prayut said the problem of high-priced limes can be easily tackled if people start growing limes for their own consumption. He said he wanted every household to do this and stop complaining about the increasing prices.

At first, I thought the PM was kidding, but apparently not. Gen Prayut was as honest with this recommendation as he has ever been with other policy issues. 

In a way, Gen Prayut's grow-your-own-limes suggestion is indicative of his way of thinking.

The prime minister showed a similar reaction when faced with criticism of the draft charter. If you don't like the new draft, then there won't be an election, he said.

What the PM's lime and charter comments share is they are both simplistic.

The expensive lime case has laid bare how out of touch the PM is with the reality of ordinary people's lives and how complicated the modern world has become. Not everyone lives in a stand-alone house with enough land to grow a lime tree.

The PM may say city dwellers can grow them in pots, but that is irrelevant. Not everyone is a gardener. Not everyone has the time required to tend to the plants. If some day the price of rice goes up, not everyone will be able to become a rice farmer. There is this thing called a market economy, and the demand-supply law that governs the price of goods.

There are times when simplicity is the best answer and there are occasions when the PM's cut-to-the-chase way of thinking can serve him well.

But in reforming the country and paving the way for a brighter future, a simple-minded approach is unlikely to be the best.


Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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