Of me, my wellness and ThaiHealth
The name "ThaiHealth" (Thai Health Foundation), a public organisation well oiled by "sin taxes" from cigarettes and alcohol companies, has become the talk of the town. The glare of the spotlight came early this month when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha invoked Section 44 of the interim charter to sack seven of its board members for alleged "conflicts of interest".
Society now casts doubtful eyes on this independent organisation. "Is this the organisation that gives funds to those NGO people who usually come out to protest against the government and have some political agenda?" a friend of mine asked caustically. "Yes, the foundation mainly supports the work of NGOs. These activists use the money to promote equal job opportunities, organic food and exercise to improve wellness," I patiently replied.
Another colleague of mine questioned its integrity. "ThaiPBS gets a two-billion-baht budget for running a TV station! This foundation gets five billion baht for promoting wellness, campaigning against cigarettes and booze and encouraging people to exercise! Of course, these executives are khon dee who wish to do good things for society. But the budget approval is questionable. Some board members happened to be chairpersons of NGOs that received funds. Don't you think that sounds quite dubious?"
"But the board members will abstain from votes and many of them had resigned from recipient organisations. Indeed, their budgets and expenditures are audited by the government," I retorted as my face turned red with anger. Suddenly, I hear myself fiercely defending this foundation as if I were part of the public debate.
From my point of view, the first group that engages in the debate comprises the foundation's ardent supporters. This group firmly believes the use of Section 44 is a conspiracy perpetrated by the state in order to control both the independent agency and its budget. The second is anti-military groups who gleefully rejoice to see the romance between the junta and the foundation turn sour. The group was disillusioned by a few executives in the foundation who zipped their mouths when the military took over in the 2014 putsch. The last group is the conservative right wing -- a pro-establishment group that believes in the state apparatus. This group believes NGOs -- major recipients from ThaiHealth -- are proxies of political groups and accept money in order to protest and protest.
After labelling others, you may ask which group I belong to? By profession, I cover civic and societal stories and several activists. I am familiar with are recipients of ThaiHealth funds. I find many projects they run quite progressive. The foundation has solidly supported projects that empower local communities and improve public participation. Funds are used to train local villagers to create their own sources of renewable energy, manage their own waste, increase green space, protect the environment, promote gender equality, and create digital health databases at the community level to improve access to medical care.
But the bottom line is I am just a citizen who reaps benefits from this sin tax. Two years ago, I visited the ThaiHealth office building near Suan Phlu to join free running workshops. ThaiHeath has been a major sponsor of quite a few good running events, the Chom Bueng Marathon -- a well-regarded marathon organised by local communities in Ratchaburi for more than 30 years, or the increasingly popular Rainbow Run, an annual running event in Lumpini Park, held by a group of parents of children with special needs.
I also enjoy using the facilities at the ThaiHealth offices. The building itself is famous for its "green design" that is being used as a learning centre for sustainable lifestyles and wellness. Some 80% of its area is designated public space, including a park, library and meeting places for civic groups. The building is a showcase for energy efficiency with its use of solar power, low-E double glazing to reduce emissions and heat and UV rays, an organic vegetable garden on its rooftop and a building automation system that shows real-time energy conservation and consumption. Is this too lavish for a foundation that provides staunch support for less fortunate people? Yes, if you believe that any non-profit mission must emulate the spartan life of Mother Teresa.
At this point, it is predictable that I would feel sorry for ThaiHealth and organisations that depend on its budget. Some now question its future, but my question is what is going to happen to us and the wellness of society? After all, it's not just about cigarettes and booze. Definitely not.
Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.
Assistant News Editor
Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor