Friday, December 30, 2011

Yingluck: Give me a chance to work...for four years

It wasn't exactly her New Year's wish but Premier Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters today that she would like to ask for a chance to work until her four-year term is up.

It didn't matter that Government House reporters had just nicknamed her "Parrot." Nor did the opposition Democrat Party's spokesman's press conference on the same day calling her "puppet" of her brother Thaksin have any impact on Premier Yingluck's confidence that she could make it to the end of the line.

It was during an informal chit-chat with reporters that the prime minister raised the issue of her intention to stay in office for the full term despite critical remarks from the opposition and comments from certain quarters that her performance had so far been far from impressive.

"Give me a chance to do my work...until the end of my term," she said. You can't really describe it as a declaration of purpose. Neither can you say she was pleading with the press to be kinder to her.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How do we stop them from stealing flood-relief fund?

The government says it plans to spend Bt800,000 million in post-flood relief and rehabilitation. The first question from a skeptical public is not how it is going to be spent. It’s how much of it will not be spent on the flood victims.
Thais have got used to stories about money from huge projects requiring large amounts of tax money being pocketed by politicians and bureaucrats who are so versatile in exploiting the legal loopholes that despite all efforts trying to keep corruption out of the way, they could always find a way of stealing the public’s money.
Premier Yingluck Shinawatra, whether she wants it or not, now gets an offer from the business community to help monitor the way the flood-relief budget is being disbursed.
In fact, the Counter-Corruption Commission (CCC) has on its own come up with a new tool to make all deals between government agencies and their contractors more transparent. For the first time, any firm that has won a contract from a government agency for over two million baht will have to fill up forms that detail their income and expenses and all financial items that are directly related to the deal. In an unprecedented move, the CCC even demands that the contractor show the “bottom line” of each government project. That means the public will under the new set of rules be able to ascertain how much profit (or, in that unlikely scenario, loss) the contractor makes, and why, and how.
At the same time, the “Anti-Corruption Network” which comprises the country’s biggest and most influential business, banking and industrial associations as well as other non-government organizations, has proposed to the Yingluck government to undertake three major steps to ensure transparency in the use of the flood relief budget.
First, the government must make public all details of projects that come under the scheme on a website to underscore the sense of accountability on the part of the government.
“Real-time” details about each project’s financial status, the median prices and profiles of the contractors must be made available to the public. The previous practice of producing such reports three months after the project was kicked off won’t be acceptable anymore.
The second requirement that the public wants implemented to ensure a high degree of accountability is that the government must put in place an audit mechanism that will check on every item of the project. Apart from the government’s audit agencies, the government must open the way for private-sector’s monitoring groups that should be allowed to participate in the process in an open and transparent manner. Anyone found guilty of breaking the budgetary spending rules must be punished.
The third part of the proposal is for the Cabinet to promptly set in motion the CCC’s new rules in checking up on all deals between government agencies and private contractors.
Do we know how our tax-money could be siphoned off to private pockets? The tricks and secret deals are no secret. The solution is how to keep track and snare the big fish.
Corrupt politicians and bureaucrats would try to circumvent the rules and regulations by resorting to “ special purchase practices” which under the long-established rules can waive the basic requirements of setting the “median price” for each tender for government schemes. In other words, under-the-table deals can be made and dirty money can be passed without being detected.
Duplication of tasks by concerned government agencies could open the way for corruption – and without an efficient evaluation system, the flood relief fund could be easily misspent.
Equally scandalous is the well-known practice of a politician or official farming out “projects” under the post-flood reconstruction scheme to their own dummy companies or cronies who have access to “inside information” on upcoming tenders for government contracts.
How effective this move to plug the loopholes against all those dirty hands in power remains to be seen. But one consolation, at least, is that the private sector has never been so aggressive in protecting the people’s tax money.
It is also the first time that the public’s distrust of how the Establishment spends our money in the name of helping our fellow countrymen becomes a matter of serious public and urgent concern

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is this serious?

Of course, nobody takes this Facebook page seriously. But it could lead to real national reconciliation. Don't you think?

Thaksin tells his MPs: Don't call me, I'll call you

Thaksin Shinawatra's cell phones have had lots of "missed calls" from Bangkok recently. He deliberately didn't pick up the phones. He knew they were from desperate MPs of his Pheu Thai Party with a very specific purpose.

"If I didn't answer your phone calls, please don't get upset. That's because there were lots of rumours about a Cabinet reshuffle and I didn't want to pick up the phones. Those of you who failed to get a Cabinet seats last time, just wait for the next round," he told a New Year Party's gathering of his MPs through Skype last night.

"I have kept quiet recently because I want the prime minister and her Cabinet members to devote their energies to their work to make the people happy," he said.

In brief, he was telling the Pheu Thai MPs: "Don't call me. I will call you."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What's so funny, Madame PM?

It's not clear what made Premier Yingluck go into such an open laughter. Can't possibly be the news that the Government House Press Corp had given her the nickname of "Parrot" in their annual handing out of humourous labels to politicians. She has reacted graciously by saying she wasn't offended. "It's part of the fun and games," she said.

This picture from the front page of Thai Post this morning was taken while the PM was enjoying a bowl of noodle at the reporters' New Year's Party at Government House yesterday. The caption didn't explain why she was overwhelmed with a good sense of humour on that particular occasion.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Right or wrong, this is the Speaker speaking!

"Once the House Speaker hands down a judgement, that's it. Whether it's right or wrong is something else..."

That's the statement from House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont which was today voted "Remarks of the Year" by Parliament Press Corp.

The Parliament reporters also gave him a nickname: "The Fake Hammer, Made in Dubai."

"Hammer" had been Somsak's nickname when he was deputy House Speaker and was then known for his decisiveness in handling House debates. He often used the hammer to put things back into order.

Now, it would be interesting to know his reactions to the reporters' tongue-in-cheek annual teasing festival

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ransom paid by Ital-Thai employees kidnapped in eastern Tavoy

A road sign near Tavoy, a site of a planned special economic zone and deep-sea port.

A number of employees for the Italian-Thai Development Company (ITD) were kidnapped and 16 vehicles were hijacked for several hours on Tuesday by five armed men in eastern Tavoy, according to the Irrawaddy website.

Calling themselves the BBK, the armed gang released the hostages and vehicles a few hours later, but only after extorting 10,000 baht [US $300] from the workers, according to Eh Na, the editor of Thailand-based Karen news agency, Kwekalu who said he met with the hostages on Wednesday.

The employees were said to be mostly Thai and were working on road construction for the multimillion-dollar Dawei Development Project.

“In addition to the workers, the armed gang seized 16 trucks and three satellite walkie-talkies. They also extorted 10,000 baht in cash from the hostages,” said Eh Na. “They were all released at midday.”

The five armed men allegedly told the ITD employees that they each had to pay another 1,000 baht if they wanted to continue working on the project, the road construction phase of which is to link the industrial plant in Tavoy in Tenasserim Division to Thailand's Kanchanaburi.

Although Burmese government troops and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 4 are both active in the Tennaserim area, early indications are that the five armed men were not affiliated with any one armed group in particular.

Saw Kwe Htoo Win, the chairman of Mergui-Tavoy District for the Karen National Union [the KNLA's political arm], said the ITD had informed the KNU about the incident and that it was investigating who was behind the kidnapping.

“We certainly did not order our troops to do such a thing,” he said. “But we are checking into the incident.”

The KNU warned in July that road construction on the project should be stopped after local villagers complained that it would have a severe negative impact on the local population and the environment. Displaced villagers also said that they have not been compensated for the loss of their land and homes which were confiscated to make way for the mega-project.

In July, some 50 workers from the ITD fled from Tavoy to the Thai side of the border to escape fighting Burmese government troops and Karen rebels.

ITD's contract on the Dawei Development Project was approved in March 2010 by the Burmese military government. With an estimated cost of $60 billion, the industrial project will include a deep-sea port, a giant industrial zone, roads, railways, transmission lines, and oil and gas pipelines

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Yingluck reveals 'the toughest part' of a premier's job

What's the most difficult part being prime minister? No, not fighting floods. Nor is it running the Cabinet. It's responding to reporters' questions every morning.

That's what Premier Yingluck Shinawatra has told reporters in an informal chat over the weekend in Chiang Mai during a break in her northern visit.

Yingluck, according to Matichon, said she had to read newspapers and monitor morning television news shows to prepare herself for the questions from the press corps every morning.

"My trick is to anticipate the questions from reporters by reading the papers and watching TV in the morning. If I am late on any particular day, it's because there are lots of hot issues on the plate," the premier said with a hearty laugh.

One would assume the premier would have her assistants brief her every morning on the hot issues and the questions she could expect from the reporters. From what she told the press, that obviously isn't the case. Maybe she is crying out for help through this chat with the press.No?

A well laid-out front page for a 'well-planned succession'

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Jatuporn as government spokesman?

It's more than just pure speculation. Jatuporn Prompan, Pheu Thai MP, red-shirt leader and outstanding public speaker may become the government spokesman -- especially if he is stripped of his MP's status.

The Election Commission has ruled that he is disqualified as MP because he hadn't exercised his voting rights in a previous election. The case now goes to the Constitutional Court to hand down the final verdict.

Jatuporn has warned that if his foes weren't careful, they would be making the mistake of edging him out onto the streets which could be more dangerous than allowing him to continue to be an MP. In other words, he could bring the mob out again if ousted from the House of Representatives.

It was at this time that rumours started to fly that Jatuporn as replace Thitima Chaisaeng as the government spokesman -- and Thitima, at least publicly, doesn't seem to mind.

"Khun Jatuporn is much more aggresive than I am. That would be good for the government," she said.

Red-shirt members have been increasingly demanding the rights to put their men and women into government positions claiming that they had been instrumental in boosting the chances of Pheu Thai in winning the last election.

Jatuporn hasn't made any comment on his next post. He seems determined to fight to stay on as MP until the last minute, failing which he could then plot his next big move. Being government spokesman may be one of his strategies to remain politically active. But then there are Cabinet posts and other portfolios that his supporters may be demanding for him. His stars are clearly rising.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In a new TV format, PM 'relaunches' her image-building campaign

As I write, PM Yingluck is live on Channel 11 for her Saturday broadcast, with a new twist. She has decided to turn it into a "reality show" of sorts, with Suranand Vejjajiva, former PM's Office minister, as moderator.

Yingluck chose a familiar ground -- her hometown Chiang Mai to "relaunch" her weekly morning show which since she took office was restricted to a radio show. Today, it became a new television format, aimed apparently at making her weekly "meeting the people" programme more lively and picking up ratings.

After a flesh-pressing walk around Waroros Market, the PM sat down with Suranand for an interview -- basically on non-controversial issues about the government's activities.

In the background are the two Pheu Thai MPs, including Foreign Minister Surapong Vijakchaikul from Chiang Mai, and the provincial governor.

They talked about floods -- and the premier said she would like to see a totally dry country as a New Year's Gift for the country.

She talked about recovery from the floods in general terms. The infrastracture must be rebuilt. Foreign investors are still confident in Thailand.

The PM also talked about the paddy mortgage project, car insurance for flood victims, etc...

Suranand asked: Is life as PM different from life as CEO? "Very different. But both are the same: We need team work."

She was asked about evaluating the Cabinet's work so far. "I have to be sympathetic with the Cabinet members many of whom have been busy with fighting the flood. We have been only here four months."

Suranand was obviously trying to avoid asking the direct question of whether she was thinking of a Cabinet reshuffle which has been one of the hottest political topics in the past week.

Self-evaluation? "I think the people should evaluate my work," she said. "Obstacles shouldn't be considered problems. They should be seen as issues we need to tackle and resolve."

"Give us a bit more time," she pleaded.

Next year's challenge? "The world economy is the challenge. Thailand may not face the direct impact. We must build our own strength from within.We need to improve our productivity (she uses this word in English here)."

She was asked about her visits to various branches of the armed forces in the past week. "I am ready to work closely with the military," she said.

Yingluck revealed that she is going to meet Aung San Suu Kyi when she visits Burma next week.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cabinet reshuffle: What has performance got to do with it?

If news of a possible Cabinet reshuffle only three months after the Yingluck government took office hasn’t created any real public excitement, it’s simply because there isn’t anything to get excited about.
For one thing, when the first Cabinet was put in place, and the qualifications of each minister were examined, most Thais were resigned to the fact that they hadn’t been chosen for their ability to run their respective ministries in the first place. Putting the right person in the right job wasn’t the main consideration.
In fact, it was clear that those who became Cabinet members were picked because of their personal links to Thaksin Shinawatra either for political or economic reasons. Somehow political debt had to be repaid and services earlier rendered had to be returned one way or the other.
Therefore, from Day One, it was an open secret that the next group of candidates would be waiting in line on the merry-go-round to take up Cabinet and related posts. The original time frame was probably six to nine months before Cabinet changes were to take place. But the devastating flood accelerated the process, because a large number of the Cabinet members were caught totally unprepared for such a crisis. Others were put to the test on the spot – and there was little doubt that they failed miserably.
It’s a tough task for Yingluck to handle the presence of nominees of so many factions within the Pheau Thai Party, not to mention the obvious conflicts between ministers from coalition partners. Most of course are Thaksin’s direct choices but faction leaders have also been able to convince the former premier that they must be represented if the government was to enjoy any agree of stability. Then, there are members of Premier Yingluck’s own inner circle who never did have any direct working experience with the hard-core politicians.
Thaksin and Yingluck did try to recruit some respectable technocrats and professional business leaders to head the economic side of the management. But those approached, fearful of political interference, were demanding their own team to be brought into the Cabinet. The negotiations become complicated and got bogged down in the end. One or two candidates for the premiership (before Yingluck became the choice of last resort) who were willing to serve as Prime Minister decided to decline the offer due to the obvious risk of a close link to Thaksin and all that he represents.

Some analysts believe that any Cabinet reshuffle would have to take into consideration the composition of the two “strategic committee” set up by Premier Yingluck. In fact, it wouldn’t be a big surprise if Dr Virabongsa Ramangkura, head of the first committee (Strategic Committee for Water Resources Management), takes up a crucial portfolio in the new Cabinet line-up, such as the finance post or deputy in overall charge of economic affairs.
Dr Sumet Tantivejjakul, who heads the second panel (Strategic Committee for Reconstruction and Future Development) , isn’t expected to be recruited into a political post, however. He would rather remain a “non-political” figure providing advice to the Yingluck government – a equally , if not more, crucial role in propping up the government, whether or not the well-known technocrat himself intends it that way or not.
One major consideration in putting together a Yingluck 2 Cabinet is that the new line-up will have to be able to work with the two strategic committees which are seen, in more ways than one, even more important than the Cabinet itself. After all, the two panels – and not the Cabinet – are seen as the main image that could sustain the government’s credibility.
A Cabinet reshuffle is therefore in the works, not because a more efficient group of ministers will step in to make the business of managing the country work better but because promises of political largesse have to be kept – and everyone with any bargaining power is waiting for his or her turn on the merry-go-round.
Pheu Thai MPs were flying in droves to Singapore over the weekend, supposedly to lobby for new portfolios with Thaksin who later was said to have left for Cambodia allegedly to flee those seeking his favours. Premier Yingluck insists, meanwhile, that she isn’t considering changes to the Cabinet.
There is no contradiction here. Everybody can claim to be telling what he or she considers to be the “truth.” The only thing that matters is which “version” of the truth is being taken seriously.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Thaksin is reshuffling Cabinet -- on the run

It looks like Thaksin Shinawatra is on the run -- while trying to work out a Cabinet reshuffle for his sister who is the prime minister and who has been saying nothing about the rising speculation about her new Cabinet line-up.

Thaksin was in Singapore yesterday. He was seen on a video clip at his daughter's wedding in Bangkok last night. Then, this morning, reports suggested that he was flying to Cambodia. Why? Press reports quoting sources in Pheu Thai Party say Thaksin was "overwhelmed" with all the MPs seeking meetings with him in Singapore asking for new Cabinet posts. He was, to put it mildly, fed up, perhaps. So, he decided to run away from all those currying favour with him. He is expected to be in Cambodia to avoid his own people. But then, he doesn't seem to be able to get away from them. In fact, it could get worse. Cambodia is much closer to Bangkok than Singapore. So, the rush will even bigger and rougher.

The press reports could be wrong though. Thaksin may have decided to move close to Bangkok so that he can meet more people talking to him about new Cabinet posts. He needs to be closer to where the action is.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cabinet reshuffle? What reshuffle? The PM isn't aware of any.

Someone snapped this picture in front of Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Hotel Friday amidst rumours in Bangkok that some members of Pheu Thai Party had flown there to discuss with Thaksin Shinawatra the possibility of a Cabinet reshuffle.

The woman on the left does look like Yaowapa Wongsawasdi, Thaksin's sister, and the man on the right bears some resemblance of Varathep Rattanakorn, a former Cabinet member and a close aide to Thaksin. Whether they were there to meet the former premier or not wasn't confirmed although the speculation went so far as to pin down five Cabinet seats that were to be replaced in the new line-up that was supposed to be put into effect after the New Year.

I am not sure who the "sources" were. But it is clear that the rumours had been spread from with the Pheu Thai Party, most likely from those who would like to see changes made in the current Cabinet composition. Those Cabinet members "targetted" for changes have publicly said they aren't aware of any forthcoming changes.

Most significantly, perhaps, was Premier Yingluck's statement in response to questions from reporters about the rumoured Cabinet reshuffle. She said she wasn't aware of any upcoming changes -- and she insisted that no changes were being contemplated.

So, what were they doing in Singapore?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The total eclipse tonight

Tonight's total eclipse took place on Dec 10 --- Constitution Day, also known as Democracy Day. Some political doomsayers were suggesting that this might be a bad omen since the "rahoo" which was "swallowing" the moon might be "eating up" the country's constitution as well.

Of course, I think they were simply over-dramatising the whole thing. Or perhaps, they were simply reading from the undercurrents in the political scene. One can never be too optimistic in analysing Thai politics.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Please change your mind, Madame PM

The Thai Chamber of Commerce was hoping that Premier Yingluck Shinawatra would attend the annual conference to be held in Rayong province over the weekend. She has disappointed them by delegating Deputy PM Kittirat na Ranong to be there instead.

TCC's Deputy Chairman Pornsilp Patcharintanakul did not hide his feelings when he publicly told reporters yesterday that he was "deeply disappointed."

"I am not sure why the prime minister has decided not to come despite the fact that this is a very important forum for the country's leader to instill confidence among the business leaders, both local and foreign," he said.

He said the annual gathering of the country's business leaders was basically a non-political event. "It's important that the government and private sector work together to move forward together after the big flood. There are still many problems to be thrashed out. I hope she changes her mind," he said.

Who knows, if someone briefs the premier on the TCC's leadership's grumbling about her non-appearance, she might still change her mind. After all, she was a businesswoman before she became prime minister and what she lacks in political skill could be compensated by her business management experience. In fact, she should feel more at home among business leaders than politicians.

Keep prodding, Pornsilp.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The return of Arisman

Check out my discussion with Nation Editor Tulsathit Taptim on the circumstances surrounding the return and surrender of red-shirt firebrand Arisman Pongruangrong who was denied bail yesterday. His lawyers are presenting a two-million-baht bond to seek an appeal for the bail again probably today.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Which way, Madame PM?

This picture (Page One, Matichon, this morning) says a lot about what's happening in the country's political scene these days.

Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Yongyudh Vichaidit rides the tricycle while Premier Yingluck Shinawatra takes the backseat.

I could almost hear the imaginery conversation:

He asks: "Which way, Madame Prime Minister?"
She responds: "Keep going."

The actual scene took place yesterday at the "Beautiful Thailand" festival at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya to celebration His Majesty the King's Birthday Anniversary today.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Political art: Protest versus satire?

I am not sure whether it's a case of protest versus satire -- or protest versus protest or satire versus satire. But the two gestures represent highly interesting political interpretations of the prevailing moods.

The left picture is supposed to be that of a female writer baring herself for a painting to show her reaction to the verdict of 20-year imprisonment term against 61-year-old Ampon Tangnoppskul (Ah Kong) for violating the lese majeste law. He was supposed to have sent text messages disparaging Her Majesty to the personal secretary of then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in May last year as the government was confronted with the red-shirt protests.

The next day (today), this picture of a man baring himself for painting of words that asks former prime minsiter Thaksin Shinawatra to return to serve his jail term.

How these two pieces of protest art are related isn't quite clear. But the two pictures have certainly found their way into lots of social media sites in the past few hours.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Big One...hopefully the Last Big one

"The Big One" is out. It's a comprehensive record of Thailand's worst flood in 60 years. The publication, which has just hit newsstands, is a collection of all the pictures and stories about one of Thailand's worst natural disasters. It is worth keeping for posterity to stress the desperate effort to prevent the next Big One.

This special collection is published by Kom Chad Luek.