Toeing state line no way to ensure reform

Toeing state line no way to ensure reform

When top-down control is holding the country back on all fronts, reform is only possible when state abuse can be contained by civil society, grassroots groups and the media. 

Despite the current constitution and reform brouhaha, one thing is clear. No constitution can rescue the country when it perpetuates central control via an unaccountable bureaucracy and military rule. Nor can any reform assembly pave the way toward meaningful change when it does not question persistent state efforts to clip the wings of civil society, communities and the media.

If anyone still believes reform is possible under the military government's tight grip, its latest attack on the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) should bring them down to earth.

Like the Thai PBS public broadcasting service, ThaiHealth is funded by earmarked sin taxes from tobacco and alcohol. Both bodies have been under attack from the current government for misuse of public funds -- with veiled threats of the possibility of dissolving them.

The question is why, and why now?

The government is entirely correct that both organisations should be subject to financial scrutiny. What has unfolded, however, suggests the moves may be part of the government's overarching strategy to make all civic and media groups fall into line.

In the ThaiHealth case, there is also suspicion that the grilling stems from the Isra News Agency's reports on PM Prayut Chan-o-cha's father's land sale and his brother's assets. Isra's funding also comes from ThaiHealth.

Since the coup, the military government has been quite successful in suppressing anti-coup activities. Meanwhile, the Prayut government's many policies have faced strong opposition from civic and grassroots groups.

Its dreams of building dams, special economic zones, deep-sea ports, coal-fired power plants, and a riverside promenade along the Chao Phraya all met fierce opposition from local communities and civic groups. The same with forced evictions of the forest poor and plans to expand mining, gas drilling in villages and extend petroleum concessions. 

Locals' plight, while ignored by most mainstream media, is regularly featured by Thai PBS. Some civic groups which are critical of state policies also receive project funding from ThaiHealth. Now you see why the government feels it necessary to make both organisations toe the state line.

The main accusation against ThaiHealth is misuse of funds. How, for example, can it justify funding the Isra web news agency or other community projects beyond physical health concerns?

Some went so far to say that since ThaiHealth is funded by sin taxes, increasing drinking and smoking problems point to its failure and legitimise its demise.

Financial misuse or not, we need to look at the organisation's founding ideology and mission. In its mission statement, health is broadly defined as including not only body and mind, but also society and the environment. Its mission is to initiate, motivate, support and co-ordinate to foster general well-being in society and to empower citizen groups to do so.

It is why it backs green farming and environmental-friendly jobs. It also supports decentralisation, an open society, and a healthy environment.

Many state agencies which are supporting mainstream development and corporate profits are unhappy with that. Its biggest critic is probably the Public Health Ministry. ThaiHealth is not only its competitor. Its support for decentralisation of the healthcare system and budgeting is a direct challenge to public health authorities' central power.

The government is well aware of ThaiHealth's soft power. Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak enlisted its support to announce a government partnership with local communities under the Pracharath (people's state) policy to strengthen local economies. 

Despite its reformist agenda, ThaiHealth believes change can be triggered from within the system, one step at a time. It is under heavy criticism from pro-democracy groups. Yet, it is viewed as radical by officialdom and the government.

The close ties between ThaiHealth's mentor Prawase Wasi and DPM Somkid may save it from the axe. But the warning is clear. So are the moves to squeeze civic and grassroots groups by stopping their funding.

ThaiHealth and Thai PBS are not flawless. But they are part of the steps toward an open society. We should be worried when their wings are set to be clipped.

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 human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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