Prayut must make good on UN promises

Prayut must make good on UN promises

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said all the right things in his speech at the UN summit. Congratulations. The question is whether he will make good on his promises to do the right things to make the world a better place. The challenge is right here at home.

Given the military government's support for coal-fired power plants, mining in forests, big dams, and a myriad of other megaprojects that will destroy the environment and livelihoods of the poor, I braced myself for the general's maiden speech at the UN. 

As it turned out, his speech read like a bible for sustainable development. Poverty must be tackled at its root cause -- inequality. Nature and human dignity must be respected. Laws must aim to create a level playing field. Individuals and communities must be empowered. Who could argue with that? I am not the only person wondering if the man at the UN podium was the same Gen Prayut we know.

But actions speak louder than words. After presenting the right face to the international community, the general must prove true to his words. Otherwise, his speech will be just as his critics believe it to be -- mere blah-blah-blah empty rhetoric.

Let's start with his praise for the sufficiency economy philosophy. This development concept by His Majesty the King is often viewed as morality-driven. The emphasis on its moral dimension has made it easy for successive governments to pay lip service to the royal theory. By focusing on moderation and passing on the responsibility to the people to live within their means, authorities succeed in preserving structural inequality -- the very root cause of poverty and social violence as pointed out by the PM himself in his UN speech.

To make the sufficiency economy a reality, it demands radical changes in land use and water management. The New Theory farming model, for example, demands that each farmer have at least 15 rai where they can grow rice and other food, store water, and build their houses. 

The fact is that inequities in land ownership here are among the worst in the world. The statistics tell it all. Nearly one-fifth of the population are landless. For farmers who have land to till, it is not enough for them to be self-sufficient.

Meanwhile, the top land owners own 80% of all private land while the land ownership gap between the top 20% and the bottom 20% is 325 fold.

In short, land reform is necessary.  

It's the same with the need for a water management overhaul. The royal idea on in-farm water storage is now accepted worldwide as an effective way for small-scale farmers to fight drought caused by global warming. Yet, the government is all ears to irrigation authorities on big dam projects while water management remains centralised to primarily serve urban and industrial needs.

"We can choose to respect nature, rather than viewing it as merely a commodity to be exploited," said the PM during his UN speech. This is the exact same reason why residents oppose coal-fired power plants in Krabi, the Mae Wong Dam in Nakhon Sawan, and gold mining in Pichit and Loei. Does this mean the PM is now willing to heed their voices?

Gen Prayut also talked about effective laws to create a level playing field for all. I could not agree more. But if he means what he says, he needs to reform the law-making process. At present, state authorities write laws to empower their organisations, bypassing environmental and social costs. Unless law-making is inclusive to ensure "equitable access to resources" -- in his own words --  there is no need for the general to talk about good governance, transparency, and efforts to combat corruption.

A bill on gender equality was quoted to show Thai state efforts to create a level playing field. The devil is in the details. The bill allows gender discrimination for national security, religious and cultural reasons for the sake of "good" tradition. Why have such a bill at all, may I ask?

Universal health care, village funding and monthly allowances for the elderly and poor mothers were cited to show state recognition of human dignity. While they play a role in easing disparity, respect for human dignity goes well beyond those schemes.

Respect means allowing people to take charge of their lives, to choose what kind of future they want for their children. It means putting a stop to Bangkok-knows-best policies. 

Only when individuals and communities are strong can countries find true strength, the PM said. Indeed. Now we know why calls for decentralisation and freedom of expression continue to be denied, and why our society is kept weak.   

Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

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

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