Thursday, December 27, 2012

Charter change route a political minefield

Things are getting more confusing each day with the ruling party’s plan to amend the constitution. Trouble is just around the corner and the political landscape is littered with new political time-bombs.

As the scheme proceeds, the conflict isn’t confined to a confrontation between the government and opposition anymore. Pheu Thai and the Democrats are natural opponents on this case but for Thaksin Shinawatra and Jatuporn Prompan, speaking for the red-shirt movement, to be airing divergent strategies is a sign of further political turbulence.

Former Premier Thaksin did another “phone-in” Saturday evening to the huge gathering of red-shirts who were organizing an “anti-coup concert” at Khao Yai resort, insisting that all effort must be exerted to press ahead with the much-hyped referendum.

He shot down skepticism from some of his own party members and red-shirt leaders that it would be almost impossible to get half of the voters to cast “yes” ballots even if half of the eligible voters (estimated at 49 million next year) showed up as required by the constitution.

“To get 24.3 million votes for the referendum is a walkover,” Thaksin declared, arguing that for Pheu Thai Party to force a vote on the third and final reading on the pending charter amendment bill without a referendum would be too risky. He suggested that the ruling party might not get sufficient votes to pass the bill – and even if that obstacle was overcome, there is still the risk of running afoul of the Constitutional Court’s earlier ruling that a referendum would legitimize the move.

But Jaturporn, one of Thaksin’s closest advocates, was calling for a different course of action that runs counter to Thaksin’s tactics. He said to go ahead with the referendum would be to partake in a “war that we will lose.”

He said Pheu Thai should avoid a losing war called “referendum” and must move ahead to a decisive end with the vote in Parliament to rewrite the whole charter. In other words, the red-shirt movement is against the referendum or even a article-by-article amendment as had been proposed as alternatives by other factions in the ruling party.

Where does Premier Yingluck Shinawatra stand then? Nobody is quite sure. Perhaps, she isn’t quite certain herself as to what the next step should be. The party is divided. The red-shirts are putting pressure on the party. The party is supposed to follow Thaksin’s instruction. But the core members are split between caution and going all-out.

Officially, a panel set up by the party has vowed to move ahead with a plan to hold a referendum, brushing aside a proposal to amend the charter section by section. That sounds like the official party line. But upon closer scrutiny, that isn’t necessarily the case.

Chalerm Yoobamrung, deputy premier, is publicly against the referendum. He prefers to seek changes article by article to avoid a new political stalemate in the face of strong opposition against a total overhaul. He runs against another faction within the party that calls for a total rewriting of the charter.

What a total “overhaul” of the constitution means is basically to offer a higher degree of influence to the political power-that-be and to reduce the authority of independent agencies that are supposed to serve as checks and balances against “parliamentary dictatorship” or “tyranny of the majority.”

Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva of course knows exactly what Thaksin is after. He claimed that Pheu Thai’s sole purpose was to alter Article 309 of the 2007 charter which deals with the actions of the 2006 coup-makers who had thrown out Thaksin. If this particular stipulation was removed from the new charter, all legal actions taken against Thaksin since the coup would be automatically made null and void.

And that alone could plunge the country into another period of turmoil. Opponents to the Pheu Thai move could be radicalized once again. The worst-case scenario would inevitably raise its specter once again.

If past behavior is any indication, Thaksin may yet change his tactics. Warnings have emerged from various quarters – not confined to hard-core opponents of the current government – that the road ahead for a referendum is shot through with holes and surviving the political minefield is an uphill task if not impossible.

Premier Yingluck gave some hints of a possible about-turn on Tuesday when she told reporters that if 24 million voters could be found to vote in favour of a total rewrite of the charter, “we will revert to amending the constitution article by article.”

The referendum is estimated to cost tax-payers Bt2 billion. But the higher price to pay in case of a failed referendum is another prolonged period of political confrontation. The damage would be incalculable

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The question is: What is the question?

If you really listened to Premier Yingluck's story about the proposed constitutional amendment, you might be led to believe that it's about the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

If, however, you read between the lines, there isn't much of a separation after all.

At first, she said the whole issue about rewriting the charter to make it more democratic didn't really have anything to do with her government. "It's a parliamentary thing," the premier repeated that several times recently until last Saturday when she spoke on her weekly radio and television show.

In that programme, Yingluck perhaps for the first time elaborated on how her Cabinet will pave the way for a national referendum on the proposal to amend the charter BEFORE Parliament votes on the third (and final) reading of the bill to rewrite the constitution.

In other words, she was admitting that the issue would no longer be an exclusive function of the legislative body (in which her Pheu Thai Party) holds the majority votes anyway. By detailing the next steps of the political move, the premier was confirming what everybody else had concluded all along -- that both the Cabinet and ruling party in the House are very much in sync over the political direction.

Yingluck didn't hide the fact that she had consulted her brother, former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, over the charter move. It's no secret either that the Pheu Thai leaders have been getting director instructions on what to do and how to proceed over the issue from the same person. Only some very naive political observers would be ignorant of the fact the government and party are joined at the hips.

It was probably no coincidence that just one day before the premier laid down her detailed steps on the constitutional issue, leaders of the coalition government met and issued a joint statement that echoed a similar strategy: A national referendum would be held before the pro-government MPs move to vote on the final reading of the constitution amendments.

It was clearly a subtle shift in strategy to pacify opponents to the move from the opposition parties and critics in various circles who have vowed to protest against the "rush to ram through the changes" to satisfy the powers-that-be.

A move to bulldoze the bill through the House would have produced a new round of political confrontation that could spark a new round of violence on the streets. Premier Yingluck indicated that the tactical shift to move the referendum up front (instead of organizing it after the new charter is drawn up) was clearly aimed at preventing a new round of showdown between the Pheu Thai Party and all the anti-Thaksin elements.

"We would like to involve the people in the process from the start so that there won't be any tension," she said.

But holding a referendum based on the confidence that the ruling party could garner a clear majority (based on the 14 million votes Pheu Thai got in the last general election) doesn't guarantee a smooth sailing all the way.

Pheu Thai MP for Yasothorn province Peerapan Palusuk said voters must be presented with only one question— whether they agree with a proposal to create a drafting assembly to write a new charter or not.

That will create a new set of issues since there is no basic disagreement on whether or not the charter could be amended – for the right reason, for the right purpose, at the right time. And that means any changes should empower the people in general, and not to benefit any particular group of politicians – as is the question being raised in the ongoing controversy.

The first question to address, therefore, is what question (or questions) to be posed to the people in the referendum. The forming of an assembly is only the mechanism towards the eventual changes. The crux of the conflict – that the government claims to be trying to resolve – is the substance and not the form or wherewithal.

Unless the real issue of the conflict between the advocates and opponents of the proposed amendments is resolved before the next step is taken, the country could slide back into another show-down.

And, as all parties concerned realize, the next confrontation will be much worse than all the preceding ones.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Who's this new TV reporter?

At first glance, I thought she was the new up-and-coming Channel 7 female reporter. Upon closer scrutiny, though, the confident-looking anchor turned out to be Premier Yingluck. She is seen here taping a statement on her visit to Bangladesh during Dec 21-22 for all television channels. All TV female reporters beware: Keep her as premier for as long as possible or else you will all face very tough competition on the screen indeed!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sudarat makes it official: I am not available

Khunying Sudarat Keyurapant (pictured here with her father) has made it clear she is not running in the upcoming Bangkok governor election despite calls from groups of MPs, and members of the Bangkok Municipality's assemblymen.
Writing in her Facebook, Sudarat insisted that she had not as speculated gone to Hong Kong to ask former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra to field her in the imminent election of a new governor for the capital.
"I have not asked anybody, including Khun Thaksin or anybody else in the Pheu Thai Party to field me," she declared, adding that her main mission is to complete her major restoration work of Lord Buddha's Birth Place.
She admitted to being upset when she was described by certain supporters that she had abandoned her responsibility by turning down the offer.
"I have been called a commander who flees the battlefield while I should in fact be leading the fight. That's not me. I don't have to tendency to jump ship or abandon my friends of betray anybody," she said, confirming that she simply can't comply with the urging of some groups of supporters in the party."
Sudarat has pledged to continue her work in the political field by getting involved in "public policy" issues so that she could serve as a "voice for the public."
Sudarat's announcement leaves Police Gen Pongsapat Pongchaoren, the deputy police chief, as the only outstanding candidate for Pheu Thai Party to compete in the city election against incumbeng governor M.R. Sukhumbhand Baritpatra of the Democrat Party. Unless there are last-minute changes within the ruling party, of course.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Southern teachers: How many more have to die?

Education Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana was quick to show his concern for the frightened teachers in the South. He flew down to Pattani last Thursday to meet about 1,500 teachers who told him they expected the central government to do more to make teaching children safe.

But the story that emerged from the meeting was not about how to effectively prevent terrorists from taking the life of the next teacher to fall victim to violence. It was about bumping up the Bt2,500 “hazard pay” by another Bt1,000 for teachers in the far South.

As of yesterday, a total of 157 teachers have been gunned down in the past decade in the southern provinces by terrorists who were determined to disrupt the normalcy of life down there. Even innocent teachers have fallen victim to the series of violence aimed at discrediting the central government’s ability to keep law and order.

The latest two victims were reported on Tuesday right in the school’s compound in Mayo District of Pattani province where seven teachers were having lunch by a group of insurgents disguised as rangers. It was a blatant attack that put authorities to shame. It was as if security measures, despite a series of attacks against teachers the week before, were non-existent.

Killed were Baan Ba-ngo School’s female director 49-year-old Ms Tatiyarat Cheukaew and 38-year-old teacher Somsak Kwanma. They fell dead without knowing why their work to educate the local children was being targeted by the terrorists and why the central government had failed to prevent such an obvious security gap.

Before Tuesday’s shocking incident, 33-year-old Chatsuda Nilsuwan, a teacher from Ban Ta-ngo, Cho Airong District of Narathiwat province had been killed in a daring assault. The next day, a 52-year-old teacher, Thirapol Chusaongsaeng, at Ban Noko school was shot and injured in the same province.

Last week’s shootings prompted the Confederation of Teachers in Narathiwat province to suspend classes at 378 schools in the province pending assurances from local authorities that more effective protective measures would be meted out.

“We didn’t really want to close the schools because that would play into the hands of the insurgents whose aim is to prove that they could halt the normalcy of life here anytime they wanted,” said one of the confederation’s leaders.

The incident triggered a call for the suspension of classes at more than 300 schools in Pattani alone, apparently to pressure authorities concerned to review all security measures for local teachers. The loopholes in the system to ensure safety for teachers were plainly too many to plug.

Fourth Zone commander Lt Ge Udomchai Thammasaroraj pledged to beef up protection measures. The new education minister promised to raise the "hazard pay" by Bt1,000 to Bt3,500. Schools were reopened on Dec 3.

But just as negotiations were progressing, the insurgents weren't taking a break. They torched a local school at Amphoe Panarae in Pattani on Nov 29 and another one nearby on Dec 2 despite stepped-up security measures.

How could such blatant attacks take place despite the show of renewed effort on the part of the authorities to provide protection to local teachers?

It was hard not to suggest that the authorities -- including the military, police and civilian officers -- weren't plainly out of touch with reality. One would have thought that all these incidents taking place in the wake of the tense aftermath of the killing of teachers should have put every security unit on red alert.
Panarae District, it has been pointed out, had one of the most heavy concentrations of military presence in the area just as the spate of insurgents' activities were being launched.

The tactics employed by the terrorists were also being repeated successfully without any effective counter measures by local anti-insurgent elements. They were disguising themselves as local rangers, policemen and volunteers in carrying out the attacks. It was an old ploy that remains unchallenged by authorities suggesting that the government forces aren't in a position to devise any effective means to neutralize some very basic tactics used by the other side to disrupt local villagers' livelihood.

Other well-known tactics employed by the insurgents remain successful tools for the terrorists including shooting at government troops and policemen to seize weapons and planting bombs on roadside locations as well as using motorcycle and car bombs to kill officials. They have also resorted to torching business locations in the cities to cause panic and fear.

All these terror tactics aren't new or unpreventable. The fact that they can be employed to cause chaos at will indicates that the joint security forces have failed to map out successful counter-insurgency strategies that could blunt terrorist attacks.

Teachers and schools have become the most vulnerable link in the insurgents' chain of fear-inspiring activities. Unless the central government and local authorities seriously work out an effective and sustainable preventive set of well-coordinated measures, no amount of "hazard bonus" and whistle-stop visits by Cabinet members down South will bring us any nearer to a real solution.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Referendum BEFORE or AFTER charter vote?

What comes first: A referendum before voting on the 3rd reading of the constitutional amendment -- or after?
First, some Pheu Thai MPs were pushing for an immediate voting on the third reading so that the proposed changes to the constitution could proceed promptly. Then came strong opposition from various quarters warning of another round of confrontation if Thaksin pushes for immediate changes to the charter.
Yesterday, Premier Yingluck admitted she had consulted her elder brother and that he had given her advice on the matter. She didn't say what advice was given.
But it was almost a concidence that Thaksin, speaking at a function at Hong Kong's Asia Society, said his sister would amend the constituion by first holding a referendum.
On the same day, Yingluck confirmed that she supported a referendem on constitutional amendments before pressing ahead with a vote on the third reading of the charter rewrite bill.
Nothing is certain, of course, judging from recent history. Thaksin could change his mind yet once again, depending on how he evaluates his own political strength at the moment.
An opponent said yesterday that Thaksin wanted to come home as soon as possible without much regard for political stability of Yingluck government while the premier herself is more concerned about not pressing ahead with any political move that could undermine her government's longevity.
Nobody is suggesting that Brother and Sister have broken up. It's only that they don't necessarily have to agree on where their respective political priorities lie at any specific time.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thaksin's appearance on Channel 11 sparks a hot exchange

Former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra's unexpected appearance on Channel 11 last night triggered a hot exchange between the government and opposition once again. Social media commentators have also been engaged in a heated debate over whether it was an appropriate things to do.
Thaksin was presiding over a Muay Thai event commemorating His Majesty the King's 85th birthday. The event was titled Muay Thai Warriors and was broadcast live from a hotel in Macau.
Pheu Thai spokesmen said Premeir Yingluck and Cabinet members had not been aware that Thaksin was to preside over the tournament.
Police Lt Col Kulthon Prachuabmoh, secretary general of the organizing committee, told local papers on the phone that he had paid Bt500,000 to Channel 11 for the live broadcast live. He said he hadn't originally planned to inivte Thaksin to chair the function. "But I happened to meet him in Hong Kong and since he had been a Thai citizen loyal to the Monarchy and had been wrongly accused of many unfounded charges, I thought it appropriate to offer him a chance tod show his loyalty the the Monarchy and to defend himself," he said.
Opposition Democrats said the Public Relations Department chief and PM's Officer Minister Sansani Nakpong should resign to accept responsibility of this mistake because Thaksin remains a fugitive fleeing the country's judicial order therefore should not have been allowed to use a government channel to make his appearance.
The debate is expected to continue this week.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

'We came so that the King can see us'

Today's crowd to wish His Majesty the King's 84th Birthday Anniversary at Royal Plaza is even larger than the last time. It's fully packed and people from all over the country from all walks of life were there when the King appeared to greet the people.
One citizen was quoted as saying that there were so many people at the scene that she couldn't hope to see the King. But an elderly woman said:
"I came not to see the King. I came so that the King can see us -- so that He could see how many of us came..."
That's inspiringly impressive!

Monday, December 3, 2012

It's in the eyes...

What do you think Army Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha is thinking about while eyeing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra? Hard to guess. But it's certainly more out of curiosity than any political motives? You might have a more interesting "insight." Tell me what you think.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Surin issues warning: South China Sea dispute could turn into Asia's Palestine

Surin Pitsuwan, the outgoing Asean secretary general, has come up with the strongest warning ever over the South China Sea disputes. He told Financial Times yesterday that the conflict risks turning into an "Asia's Palestine" issue -- that could deteriorate into a violent conflict that draws sharp dividing lines between nations and destabilises the whole region.
He said Asia was entering its "most contentious" period in recent years as a rising China stakes out its claim to almost the entire South China Sea, clashing with the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
He told the FT: "We have to be mindful of the fact that the South China Sea could evolve into another Palenstine" if countries do not try harder to defuse rather than inflame tensions.
The latest incident concerns China's decision to print a map of its extensive maritime claim, known as the "nine-dotted line" in new passports, prompting Vietnam to hit back by marketing the passports of visiting Chinese as "invalid." Vietnamese immigration officials have issued separate visa forms.
India has also protested. Other countries have found themselves in a dilemma as to what to do with the passports used by Chinese visitors.
The Thai Foreign Ministry says there is no issue for Thai immigration officials.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Nation's front page tomorrow

The clash at Makkawan Bridge

The anti-government rally today got off to a violent start when police used tear-gas to disperse the protesters who insisted on breaking the police barriers to get to the rally site at the Royal Plaza.
Later in the afternoon, "Seh Aye" Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit, leader of Pitak Siam Group, declared on stage: "I am ready to die if I can't bring down this government with this rally."
Protestors clashed with police in the morning when tear-gas was fired. Police claimed that they had been "provoked" by the demonstrators who had fired tea-gas first.
Gen Boonlert charged that police had "over-reacted" and had unnecessarily resorted to the use of tear-gas.
Police said they had cordoned off areas near Makkawan Bridge to prevent the protesters from trying to get near Government House and Parliament Buildings.
Protestors used a truck to ram through the police barriers, forcing a violent confrontation between police and the demonstrators. Police at one point picked up about 100 protestors including a television cameraman and put them in a police truck.
Later in the afternoon, a new clash took place when the protestors at Royal Plaza asked police to clear the way for them to march to join force with demonstrators at Missakwan Intersection. Police pushed back the protestors and fired tear-gas when they resisted.
Red-shirt leader Thida Tavornseth went on Asia Update Channel to plead with red-shirt members to stay put and wait for signals from her, Nattawut Saikua and Jatuporn Prompan before making any move.
Premier Yingluck Shinawatra cancelled all her functions and stayed home to monitor the tense situation.
Sen Aye called off the rally at around 5.30 pm. He said the rally had failed to attract his target of one million people and he didn't want the protestors to be harmed. "See you again when the nation needs you! Goodbye for now."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thaksin's advice to businessmen: If you want to enter politics...

Former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra said in New Delhi yesterday that politicians should give up their business interests before entering politics.
He said at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit:
"If you really want to enter politics, wash your hands of business. If you change too fast, there is resistance, especially when democracy is not mature."
He added that politics is for those who are willing to sacrifice, do not have anything to lose and are willing to do good for the country.
At the conference, Thaksin was asked questions about crony capitalism and allegatons that he was controlling Thailand remotely by using his sister as a proxy.
He responded: "It is a good excuse to accuse others of corruption. In my case, there is no corruption. It is a technique to keep me out of Thailand."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Chalerm-reporter's war of words

Deputy Premier Chalerm Yoobamrung and Channel 7 reporter Somchit Kruanawasunthorn were engaged in a "war of words" today -- quite a rare happening. But considering the two's equally well-known gift of gab, it was quite surprising that the verbal clash only exploded today.
At one point during Chalerm's Q-A with reporters, Somchit asked him several questions about the upcoming anti-government rally by Pitak Siam Group. Chalerm told her: "You have been to the Democrat Party too often. You are overindulgent with the Democrat Party."
Somchit told him: "I can sue you for defamation if you say that."
Chalerm retorted: "What's libellous about that? If you think so, just report to police and have me arrested."
A few moments later, after Chalerm left the gathering, she followed him to shout: "What if I say you are Thaksin's slave? Would that he libellous?"
Chalerm shouted back: "Yes, that's libellous."
Somchit hit back: "Then, you go and report to police..."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The war is back

Nattawut Saikuao, deputy commerce minister and a red-shirt core leader, tells Matichon Daily that "the war is back."
He was referring to the emergence of the Pitak Siam Group led by retired Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit who has called a new rally for Nov 24, declaring that he expected "one million people" to turn up at this second gathering.
Nattawut doesn't believe Gen Boonlert is the real man behind the move. He says this new protest should have been led by Sondhi Limthongkul or Chamlong Srimuang of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) "but they are still bickering...that's why, they have to rely on Gen Boonlert."
The red-shirt leader insists that the "old mechanism" of the anti-Thaksin movement is still in place.
"A new war is imminent. We are ready for it," he declared.
In a column published in the same newspaper today, Vasit Dejkunchorn, a retired former deputy national police chief, asks: "Do we want to see another Day of Great Sorrow again?"
Police Gen Vasit has been writing columns against Thaksin in the past years.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Old soldiers never die...they get hooked into political games

Gen Chaisith Shinawatra, former army chief and one of former Premier Thaksin's cousins, standing second from right in the second row, heads alumni of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School in a meeting yesterday to declare their opposition gainst the Pitak Siam Group's move to hold a second anti-government rally.
The Pitak Siam Group is led by another retired general, Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit, announced today that the second rally will be held on Nov 24, beginning at 9.01 am, at the Royal Plaza.
He said this will be the last rally to be held by his group and he hopes one million people will turn up.
Gen Boonlert says he isn't really worried about Gen Chaisith's move "because this group comprises only a minority of the military academic alumni. Besides, Gen Chaisith is related to Thaksin. So, there is nothing surprising about this move."
What it boils down to is the fact that the two old generals have decided to stand on opposite sides of Thaksin, for whatever reasons. Both sides have their own former classmates -- who have been persuaded to come out into the open to state their case over Thaksin.
They say old soldiers never die. They just play an old men's political game.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Who is supposed to know what?

Noppadon Pattama is Thaksin Shinawatra's "legal adviser." Surapong Tovijakchaikul is the foreign minister. Who do you think should know more about Thaksin's movements?

Officially, the foreign minister should be monitoring the former premier's travel plans. But he told reporters yesterday that he knew nothing about Thaksin's upcoming visit to Myanmar.

Noppadon, on the other hand, has all the details. He said Thaksin will be in Myanmar Nov 8-10. He will be meeting Myanmar President Thein Sein Nov 8 in Naypidaw. The next day, he will be meeting Thai businessman on the border and will also greet Thais who love Thaksin. On Nov 10, he will be at the border town of Tachilek, making merits at the Shwedagong replica and meeting red-shirts and Thais from across Amphoe Mae Sai of Chiang Rai province.

Sometimes, it seems ignorance is bliss, especially if it is deliberate lack of knowledge.

The holy triangle: The party, Cabinet, the red shirts

The new Yingluck Cabinet, the third in slightly over one year, doesn’t promise a big shakeup in terms of delivering an elevated performance.

The fact that 22 portfolios have been reshuffled doesn’t suggest a “comprehensive” improvement. It simply means the game of musical chairs has to be played all over again so that political debts could be settled and the “quota system” gets implemented more vigorously.

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s statement that there was no interference from her elder brother Thaksin (“I did it myself.”) was slightly much persuasive this time because her “inner circle” was retained, most notably Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Kittirat na Ranong and the surprise appointment of a professional physician Dr Pradit Sindhavanarong as the new public health minister.

Her decision to keep Commerce Minister Boonsong Teriyapirom probably is the most “risk” choice since that means she has denied herself the political wriggling room to get off the highly controversial, expensive and unsalvageable paddy mortgage scheme. The Opposition’s threat to submit a censure motion against the government next month will undoubtedly zero in on this “weakest link” of the Yingluck government.

Whether he gave any specific instructions to her sister or not, Thaksin’s grip on the new Cabinet remains strong. For one thing, his two most trusted men in the current Cabinet – Communications Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan and his deputy, Chatchart Sithipant – have been promoted to more powerful posts.

Charupong, who is also Pheu Thai Party’s secretary-general, has been moved to the influential interior portfolio while Chatchart has been elevated to the post as communications minister. Nobody should be surprised if Charupong is made the party’s leader to replace Yongyuth Vichaidit in the next party’s elections.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul, another trusted aide of Thaksin, not only retains his post but has also been offered an extra portfolio as deputy premier, presumably to boost his clout in domestic politics while expanding his role in the international scene.

The return of at least three prominent figures in the “Group of 111” to the Cabinet posts after their five-year political ban was lifted recently underscores Thaksin’s unmistakable hold on the Yingluck Cabinet.

Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, as the energy minister, Pongthep Thepkanchana in the education minister’s seat and Sermsak Pongpanich as his deputy all point to the consolidation of Thaksin’s power base.

Yingluck was said to have compiled the new Cabinet list very much in a rush, confining her consultations to a small circle of advisers and aides – for fear of “creating undesirable ripple effects” among those unhappy with the new line-up.

Not everything is plain sailing, though. The fact that red-shirt core leader Jatuporn Prompan has not made the list could well be a potential time-bomb. It remains unclear whether it’s Thaksin’s own decision or the strong opposition from Premier Yingluck that finally put Jatuporn’s name out of the new line-up. But some red-shirt core leaders, especially Thida Tavornseth, have already gone on the record as saying that they felt betrayed by Jatuporn’s being left out of the new Cabinet.

It was never a secret that Thaksin had one way or the other given the impression that Jatuporn would be given a Cabinet portfolio in this new reshuffle. Jatuporn himself did little to hide his disappointment. “I am ready to swallow blood,” he declared. In other words, he is ready to suffer the pain of rejection, but not in silence or alone.

Thaksin would have to do a lot of patching up with some of the red-shirt leaders to prevent them rocking the boat. Relations between certain red-shirt factions with the Yingluck Cabinet and the mainstream Pheu Thai Party leadership will become more tricky if cracks caused by the Cabinet shakeup get worse in the new power play.

One of the long-held beliefs in Thai politics is that very few governments are toppled by outside political force. Most political downfalls come from within. Whether or not Thaksin “interfered” in the drawing up of the new Cabinet list, he might be forced to “intervene” in the looming conflict between the party, the government and its own political front.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thaksin tells Forbes about advising his sister and digging gold in Africa

Thaksin Shinawatra tells Forbes magazine that he speaks a few times a week, or more, to Premier Yingluck -- often on family affairs but also to advise on official matters.

Forbes quoted him as saying in an exclusive interview in Dubai recently:

"Sometimes when there's a hot issue we talk more. Because I know the people, I know the law, I know international protocols. She is new. She doesn't need to call me, but when she does, I can give her the answers immediately. Because I am sitting here foing nothing..."

Tim Ferguson, who interviewed Thaksin, reported that Thaksin said he had $1 billion of the seized funds returned to him.

The former prime minister said he had so far invested about $30 million in mining in Africa.

He was quoted as saying that he had got concessions for exploration in Uganda and Tanzania, and titanium concession in Zimbabwe.

"We found gold and titanium already...the first report will come out next month and some will come out in January. We will start (mining) gold in Tanzania in February (2013). Uganda will come next year. ..we also found a very good reserve of platinum in Uganda.." he said.

He was asked at one point: Have you ever got your money fromt he Shin Corp process back?

Thaksin said: "I got back part of it, about $1 billion...That's why I have money to invest."

Thaksin said he had got out of the coal mining project in South Africa..."I've been trapped into conflict with a partner. So I get out..."

When he was told that he was very familiar with the policy direction of the current Thai government (discussing the controversial rice pledging project), Thaksin responded:

"This policy, I am the one who thinks. Like our slogan during the campaign, Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New Pheu Thai leader Charupong in perfect harmony with his No 2

As expected, Charupong Ruangsuwan was elected unchallenged as the new leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party today to replace Yongyuth Vichaidith who quit to avoid a legal controversy.
Charupong has come a long way. His rise was also quite predictable since he was named to the Cabinet even before Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister.
He was asked on radio just now whether he would consult Thaksin Shinawatra in what he will do now as party leader. His answer was direct and unmistakable: "Khun Thaksin is an important person of the party. He was the founder of Thai Rak Thai which became Palang Prachachon after it was disbanded. Now, I don't consider him a criminal. He has done nothing wrong. So, it would be quite natural for me and the other party members to consult him over various policy issues."
Asked whether he could work with Bhoomtham Vejjayachai, who was named party secretary-general, Charupong, who has moved from the communications portfolio to the interior ministry's top post int he new line-up, was quick to declare:
"We can work very well together," he said.
And when the radio programme host teased him: "Who's boss, you or the secretary general?" His prompt response was: "Oh, we consult each other. We work together."


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Anti-government rally at a horse race-course: Neither big nor small

Our reporters say the anti-government rally at the Royal Turf Club today, led by retired Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit, went smoothly. The turnout was not was big as the organizers had hoped. Nor was it as small as police had claimed. Security was tight. But there were no untoward incidents. The chief organizer said the rally would end at 5.30 pm. He called on those who came today to come back for another one soon.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why does Jatuporn say he has to 'swallow blood'?

Thai papers this morning reported on Jatuporn Promporn's comments about his not being on the new Cabinet list. He was quoted as saying that he would have to "swallow blood." That means he would have to suffer the pain of not being recognized by the Pheu Thai Party.
Daily News' front page headline screamed: "Thaksin flies in to clear up Yingluck 3 Cabinet chaos."
Thaksin Shinawatra, according to another report, is due in the Myanmar border town of Tachilek probably early next month. His arrival there -- and the dissenting voice from red-shirt leader Thida Tavornseth over Jatuporn's absence from the new line-up -- has probably triggered speculation about a possible crack between some red-shirts and Pheu Thai Party's leadership. If that's the case, Thaksin is supposed to calm things down before they explode into a major issue.

Friday, October 26, 2012

PM Yingluck says this new Cabinet line-up is really her own work

"Defies" may be putting it a bit too dramatically. But there are signs that the younger sister may have tried to push the limits a bit more aggressively with her elder brother.

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra insists: "I did it myself." And to a degree, she might be telling the truth. It's difficult, however, to convince a cynical Thai public that her brother Thaksin has nothing to do with compiling the list of the 3rd Yingluck Cabinet at all.
The fact that Kittirat na Ranong remains deputy premier and finance minister goes some distance to prove that Yingluck can overrule Thaksin over issues over which she is determined to exercise her authority as the prime minister. But the inclusion of some prominent "Group of 111" -- those who have just emerged from a five-year political ban -- in the new line-up points to Thaksin's clear influence over the reshuffle.
The choices, obviously, have nothing to do with the principle of "putting the right person in the right job." Most of the new Cabinet members have been named to their positions either because of their affiliations with important factions within Pheu Thai Party or under the unofficial "quota system" to pay political debts.
The premier says she didn't time the Cabinet shakeup (a total of 22 positions are affected) to avoid confronting the Opposition's threat to submit a House censure debate (due to be filed Oct 31). Her official reason for the changes was that two ministers -- Interior Minister Yongyuth Vichaidith and Agriculture Minister Teera Wongsawmud -- have called it quits, necessitating changes in the line-up anyway.
The real reason, of course, is that pressure has been building from various factions within the party, among the red-shirts and members of the "Group of 111" to again start the Merry-Go-Round rotating once again.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thai kids' low IQ: It's the education, stupid!

Thai kids’ IQ and EQ haven’t improved in the past ten years. Our children aged 6-15 are far behind those of Singpore and Malaysia. Bhutan, which is economically behind Thailand, has placed more emphasis on improving its children’s IQ than this country.

Those are some of the disturbing findings by a recent study cited by the Senate’s Health Subcommittee, whose chairman Surin Senator Dr Anant Ariyachaiyanich, said if the trend continues, today’s children won’t grow up to be intellectually and emotionally competent enough to compete with those on the regional, not to mention international, stage.

The study, conducted by the Mental Health Department of the Public Health Ministry, found children in 20 provinces with IQ rated at 100 and 38 other provinces below the 100 threshold.

The initial conclusion is that the factor contributing to lower IQ was diet. The survey found that children fed with their mother’s own milk for six months had a higher IQ than those drinking mom’s milk for only three months. Other factors include consumption of iodine and iron minerals.

What was left without so much of a mention was social environment and parents’ core values. Most important perhaps was the country’s hopeless education system.

The diet issue can be resolved with a clear-cut policy on nutrition budgetary allocations based on scientific studies. Populist policies have diverted considerable amounts of money to various grass-roots political organs. Now is the time to feed our children the make sure they grow up as healthy citizens.

But the real challenge lies in revamping the country’s education system if the IQ and EQ gradings of our next generation of citizens are to become much more competitive than they stand now.

The past ten years have seen great improvement in our dietary provisions. If, therefore, studies have found that Thai kids’ IQ and EQ scores have failed to rise with the passage of time, diet certainly isn’t the main issue anymore. Education is the weakest link here.

None of the governments in the past decades has managed to uplift the country’s education standards in a meaningful way despite glowing electioneering pledges. Most of the budget for this ministry has gone towards administration costs and wages, leaving very little for real improvement of standards of teachers in all fields.

A large number of teachers are either unqualified or heavily in debt. The teaching profession, once held in great esteem, has been eroding to the point that they don’t command the kind of respect previously shown by students and parents alike.

What’s worse, politicians have exploited the limited budgetary allocations for the country’s educational activities for their own ends. Good, qualified bureaucrats are sidelined while those ready to serve their political bosses take charge of the most important roles in the country’s education system.

As a result, students don’t get the kind of quality schooling that make them inquisitive, imaginative and ethical. When teachers discourage our young kids from asking questions, the young minds aren’t developed to boost the kind of IQ that is required of a youngster. Science and mathematics have fallen by the waysides and a good command of foreign languages has become an exception rather than the rule.

When IQ is lower, it is inevitable that our children’s EQ also suffers. A series of surveys have found that a rising number of our young people say they could “accept” corruption in higher places if they stand to benefit from those undesirable activities. In other words, the ethical standards of the new generation have fallen to an alarmingly low level.

The ultimate paradox is that the Senate committee that has expressed deep concern about the declining IQ and EQ scores of our young people say their solution is to submit these findings to the full Senate so that they can be forwards to the Cabinet for solutions.

My suspicion is that the higher up we go in this country, the level of IQ and EQ probably get lower. The failure of our education standards began decades ago. And that malaise begins at the top.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Even her critics agree Yingluck should be in charge of her own govt

Premier Yingluck Shinawatra has repeated the phrase often enough – to the point that she might finally be convinced of the statement herself: “I am the prime minister and I am in charge.”

Even die-hard skeptics will have to admit that the premier has recently demonstrated a higher degree of confidence in her work --- so much so that I could sense that even the opposition Democrats may be resigned to the fact that she will be in power for a while yet.

Of course, you can still say she has been putting up a brave face out of exasperation rather than the realization that she has been voted in to lead the government, and not to serve merely as her brother’s puppet.

Premier Yingluck has made it a point to appoint herself the

chairperson for all the national issues, from the southern crisis to the anti-flood war room. In most cases, when she was confronted with rising criticisms on certain policy issues, and when she looked around and couldn’t find any Cabinet member who could handle the confidence-sapping issues, Premier Yingluck has simply jumped in and declared herself in charge.

You can say it’s a welcoming sign of a growing sense of leadership for someone who has been accused of being nothing more than a figurehead. Or you can also say that it reflects a deepening sign of exasperation: She just doesn’t have enough capable people around her.

But I was struck by her latest public statement insisting that her brother Thaksin isn’t making any decision on the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle. “I am in charge. I make the choices.”

The fact that the premier appeared with her sister, Yaowapa Wongswasdi (better known as Sister Daeng), the following day in a Chinatown function, might have further stirred speculation about the elder sister’s influence in Yingluck’s government. But if she could “dismiss” Thaksin from her sphere of influence, she could probably, at least on the record, also effectively distance herself from Yaowapa.

The fact that some Pheu Thai MPs were flying to Hong Kong over the weekend, leaking the news that they were there to discuss the rumoured Cabinet changes with Thaksin, didn’t help confirm the premier’s “single command” authority, of course. But Yingluck was emphatic that the MPs were only meeting her brother for a social get-together.

She didn’t say it in that many words but one could interpret that to mean the premier was telling her own MPs that they were only wasting their time lobbying with her brother. The real power lies at Government House right in Bangkok here. Or that’s what her message was supposed to say.

If anything, she has at least stalled those close to her brother who have been pressing for an early Cabinet shake-up. Yingluck has made it clear that she will tackle the flood before getting down to the new Cabinet list.

Nobody knows whether Thaksin thinks his sister is become “too independent.” But it is clear that he would not want to put so much pressure on the prime minister that she might just quit if she isn’t seen to be running her own show, at least from now on anyway.

As it stands now, Thaksin needs his sister more than the other way round. That’s why he and his close aides have delayed the campaign for the constitutional amendments and passage of the amnesty bill so that the premier could gather sufficient breathing space to ensure the government’s stability.

That’s also why, you might have noticed, Thaksin has not been talking about coming home as often and as vehemently as he had done earlier.

The real irony is that the better Yingluck performs as premier, the more difficult it would be for Thaksin to try to pave the way for his own return.

Now even her harshest critics may begin to believe that she is really her own self. Don’t be surprised therefore that she might get more support even from those who can’t stand her brother.

Friday, October 5, 2012

PM Yingluck says she is the one making decisions

Take it from her. Premier Yingluck insists that if there are changes in the Cabinet, she would be the one to make the decisions, not her brother Thaksin Shinawatra.
It doesn't matter that a group of MPs from her Pheu Thai Party are said to have flown to Hong Kong to "discuss Cabinet changes" with Thaksin. All the rumours about Thaksin picking this and that person for this and that post in the government doesn't bother her. The PM says she is in charge and what the MPs are doing are just their own personal activity.
She is the PM. You've got to believe her.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Yingluck's woman's touch expands...

Daily News' page-one headline this morning is more interpretative than factual reporting but it does reflect thinking in certain quarters: PM Yingluck's political bargaining power is growing, even against her brother Thaksin.

Her ultimate bargaining chip is very simple. Yingluck can now tell her brother: I am quitting if you don't allow me to run my own government.

Of course, she will never say that in public, either to Thaksin or her sister Yaowapha, or Sister Daeng, as she is well-known in the political circles.

But if her brother and sister put too much pressure on how the Cabinet reshuffle is to be effected, Yingluck can always say she won't take it anymore.

And that would put her brother and sister in very difficult positions indeed.

Perhaps, that's what Yingluck meant by "a woman's touch" when she mentioned that in her speech at Asia Society in New York last week in talking about her role in helping to resolve the South China Sea's conflict between China and certain Asean members!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Yongyuth departure touches off major Cabinet reshuffle speculation

Now that Deputy PM and Interior Minister Yongyuth Vichaidit has quit, who's going to be Premier Yingluck's driver's seat?
She said in New York before flying back to Bangkok this morning that she hadn't thought about a Cabinet reshuffle to put someone in Yongyuth's place yet. Yongyuth himself said he hadn't been instructed by the PM to step down. Both statements must of course be taken with a grain of salt.
The fact remains that Yongyuth had come under pressure from several factions within the ruling Pheu Thai Party who are afraid that Yongyuth's continued presence in the government could jeopardize their position. The possibility of the party being disbanded because of Yongyuth's precarious position vis-a-vis the anti-corruption agency's accusation was weighing heavily on their concern.
Yongyuth has been a very close aide to the PM. He has served as a political buffer for her all along. Now, with his departure, a way is wide open for a large-scale Cabinet reshuffle which has in fact been postponed from a few months ago. All of a sudden, the old names have re-emerged to fill some important Cabinet posts. It won't be easy for the PM who has to juggle between nominees from all the various factions, especially those "strongly suggested" by her brother Thaksin Shinawatra.
PM Yingluck is set to undergo another leadership test once more. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

TRC report: Each side has its own version of 'truth'

I am not sure how many people have read the 276-page full report issued last week by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission (TRC) headed by Dr Kanit na Nakhon. But I am very certain that not many Thais appreciate the grueling task the commission had undertaken under very trying circumstances.

Most people probably like parts of the report that fit their own biases. That’s why most citizens would still be divided after reading the findings. They all wish the other portions of the report that aren’t very favourable to their side of the story should have been left out.

Basically, the report concludes that both sides of the May 2010 violent confrontation must share the blame for causing deaths and casualties in their street face-off. In other words, both the Abhisit government at the time and the red-shirt leaders who had engineered the demonstrations must be responsible for what followed.

A Dusit Poll found 53.7% of the respondents in support of the findings. But what irked the red-shirt leaders was the commission’s confirmation that reports of armed “men in black” shooting and killing government troops were true. They are still at large. Besides, the report also said that the armed men were close to the late Maj Gen Katiya Sawasdiphol and were provided assistance by red-shirt guards but no evidence was found to prove that they were also close to the red-shirt leaders.

On the other side of the scale, TRC also pointed an accusing finger at the government’s control command at the time for using real weapons against the demonstrators – and even if the troops were to claim that “men in black” were mingling with the protestors, that wasn’t a valid excuse for soldiers to fire live bullets on the demonstrators.

The report blames the government for its failure in using police to control the demonstrators, necessitating the deployment of military personnel. But the lack of an efficient monitoring system resulted in heavy losses on the part of the protestors.

Any neutral observer would think the TRC was trying really hard to walk a tightrope. It was never going to be an easy balancing act – and many members of the commission had known from the outset that whatever the conclusions of the panel, they were going to be the target of criticism.

Now the ruling Pheu Thai Party has demanded a new investigation into the 2010 violence, arguing that it is “dismayed” by the TRC’s report. The new committee would try to prove that the TRC was wrong about its findings about the “men in black” – and the trajectories of the bullets fired by security forces during the violence.

Former Premier Abhisit’s reaction to the report wasn’t all favourable either. He asked that the commission members provide more details of the findings to the public despite the fact that their term has ended.

Neither Premier Yingluck nor Abhisit could really challenge TRC’s findings. After all, Abhisit had appointed the commission in the first place. It was made clear from the beginning that the panel would be “independent” of any political influence. And when Yingluck took over as premier, she extended the commission’s term, confirming that her government would continue to respect the commission’s independent work to get down to the bottom of the stories behind the 2010 violence.

The premier did set up another committee to “follow up” on the TRC’s work. That panel was headed by her own deputy premier, Yongyuth Vichaidit, whose role was never really very clearly defined in the first place. Now, it would have to decide whether to “endorse” the Kanit Commission’s findings or not.

Before Pheu Thai Party’s spokesman went publicly to demand a new investigation committee on the issue, red-shirt leader Thida Tavornseth had made a similar plea. She had demanded that the government should not allow the TRC report to be translated for distribution abroad – and that a new panel should revise its content before publicizing it abroad.

Setting up a new commission to investigate the original commission’s findings certainly wouldn’t solve the problem – especially when the conclusions of the new panel have already by prescribed by the proponents of the new investigation committee. After all, if you don’t like the first report and demand a second report that you like, the other side will inevitably demand a third commission to produce another report to their liking. There could be no end to posing the question to fit the answer.

Perhaps, critics should heed the very reasonable piece of advice from the TRC Chairman Kanit himself: “Please read the full report in detail before making any comments, favourable or otherwise.”

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Somchai: Thaksin is smarter than people who don't like him

Former Premier Somchai Wongsawasdi says he believes about two-thirds of Thai population want former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra to come home. "And those who don't want him home are people who know Thaksin is smarter than they are," he declared in a seminar yesterday.
Somchai is, by the way, Thaksin's brother-in-law.
Almost immediately, Ong-art Klampaiboon, a Democrat MP, retorted: "Nobody is stopping Thaksin from coming back to serve his jail term. And Thaksin is cleverer than others only in inappropriate and law-defying activities."

Friday, September 14, 2012

Social media: Govt officials just don't get it

Interior Ministry officials have been told they check into Facebook too often during their working hours. As of Oct 1, they can only do that during the lunch break. The official reason? They are using up too much bandwidth and access to the social networking website doesn’t contribute to their productivity.

But the “ban” won’t cover YouTube. The man in charge of the ministry’s internet connection says officials there can still access the popular video website but will make downloads related to it slower.

Nobody knows whether the ministry’s officials will be allowed to tweet or not. Apparently, authorities at the ministry aren’t quite sure what social media are really all about.

Some officials who “get it” say many of their bosses simply don’t understand where the world of communications are headed. One younger official argued that Facebook had in fact facilitated coordination and was now a channel for many government units to communicate with the people. In other words, Facebook and other social media tools have saved time and expenses. “You don’t have to make telephone calls and you have instant two-way communications among government agencies,” he said.

The reason for this state of affairs is very obvious: The government doesn’t have a social media policy because most Cabinet members simply don’t know what it’s all about. They might have heard about it. They might have been told social media are “the new thing.” But most officials running this country are still too far behind in this important trend to realize not only the importance but the inevitability of using social media as part of their daily operations.

Even the most internet-savvy among the bureaucrats and ruling party members, the only purpose of social media is for political manipulation rather than to serve public interests.

Little do they realize that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be used to disseminate information, track the opinions and feelings of constituents, and, on the law enforcement side, to find criminals and illegal activities. Enlightened government agencies not only can use social media to communicate with the public but also with one another around the clock.

On the other side of the spectrum, social media could be used by citizens to demand accountability from the government and bureaucracy. And that is a vital part of building a real democratic system to which most politicians have been paying lip service.

Citizen involvement is critical for enhancing democratic governance and improving service delivery. And if that is what the government is serious about, then the best way to empower the people is to build their capacity through social media, not to view them as time-wasting, futile, and negative tools.

Social media will strengthen the citizens, civil society organizations and other non-state actors tohold the government accountable and make all politicians and bureaucrats responsive to their needs.

In the US, the Government Accountability Board (GAB) recently launched a Twitter feed and opened a new Facebook page to respond to the growing public demand for transparency from the government. Twitter gives voters even more ways to keep up with news about elections and government ethics. Twitter followers get the latest information on which officials and candidates have filed paperwork, updates on actions etc…”

Facebook and Twitter have proved to be efficient, low-cost way to reach the citizens and provide them with improved “customer service” --- something most bureaucrats still don’t appreciate is the most crucial “key performance index” (KPI) to judge whether they should stay on the job or be fired.

For the Thai government, the issue may in the end boil down to this question: How do you explain it when the government that goes out of its way to offer tablets to first grader to show that it means business when it says it wants to promote digital education – and bans adults at the Interior Ministry from accessing Facebook

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Since we don't trust ourselves, let's get outside help

The irony isn’t lost on anyone trying to understand Thailand’s “roadmap” towards resolving its long drawn-out internal political conflicts.

Outsiders consider this country where a regional peace and reconciliation council could be set up because of Thailand’s well-known role as an effective “peace broker” for neighbours. Yet, there is no light at the other end of the tunnel to resolve our very own issue of the lack of peace and reconciliation.

The Truth for Reconciliation Commission (TRC) headed by Dr Kanit na Nakhon has refused to have its term extended. It is expected to release its final report and recommendations soon. But nobody expects the government or its opponents – and all the other parties to the conflict for that matter --- to take the proposals seriously.

Sure, lip service will be plentiful all around. But even Dr Kanit and his team of well-known and respected academics have decided to wash their hands off the unenviable task of trying to find the “middle grounds” where all parties could converge to begin the arduous task of national reconciliation.

If the TRC members are disillusioned with their mission, you can’t expect others in the academic, business or non-partisan circles to have to play any part in the confidence-building process. The country’s most qualified “best and the brightest” have had their fingers burned. People I have talked to about taking part in the peace process have all said they see the whole exercise going nowhere.

The reason for this state of despair is plain to see: Neither side is willing to see the other side’s position. It may not be unfair to suggest that all the parties to the conflict have somehow seen conflict as a “growth industry” for them. That means they consider the continued existence of conflict being more beneficial to their cause than trying to find a solution.

So far, the ruling Pheu Thai and opposition Democrat Party have refused to follow what most experts on negotiations have suggested: They have refused to separate the people from the problem; they have stressed their positions rather than considering the interests involved. So far, the opponents have not invented multiple options for mutual gains and worst of all, they haven’t come around to basing their negotiations on objective standards.

It is against this background of local fragmentation that a number of Asian statesmen and leading international public policy figures are meeting in Bangkok next month to discuss a plan to set up an “Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council (APRC).”

The Bangkok forum, being put together by Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy premier and foreign minister, is billed as an attempt to create a regional vehicle to help nations prevent future conflict and facilitate peace processes throughout Asia.

He told me: “It has been agreed that Asia lacks its peace-facilitating body or institute. These are noted and experienced individuals who can help create peace dialogues. Collectively, their good offices can render shuttle diplomacy and engage various parties towards peace…”

Even if the real, tangible benefits have yet to be crystallized, the fact that this group of well-known public policy experts from around Asia are willing to come to Bangkok for a “preparatory meeting” is in itself a highly encouraging sign.

The founding members who have confirmed their participation include former East Timor president Jose Ramos Horta, Pakistan’s former PM Shaukat Aziz, former Malaysian PM Tun Abdullah Badawi, Austria’s former chancellor Dr Alfred Gusenbauer, Indonesian’s ex-vice president Jusuf Kalla and the Philippines’ former House speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.

If this first baby step towards forming a regional peace and reconciliation body is to gain some degree of credibility, governments must stay out of the picture. That’s probably why the Saranrom Institute of the Foreign Affairs Foundation is offering its role as a facilitator and the Thai foreign ministry can’t get involved, officially or otherwise.

It would probably be too ambitious to suggest that this group of Asia’s public figures could start with looking into the possibility of playing the role of “peace-broker” over the South China Sea conflicts. But what would be the point of mobilizing the region’s best foreign policy brains without addressing the issue of the day?

Do I have the audacity to suggest that perhaps once the APRC is formed, one of its not-so-official missions is to see whether they could start with a “stress test” of helping Thailand resolve its internal conflict.

We have probably drained our own domestic resources and we don’t trust one another anymore. Perhaps, the “good offices” of some outside experts might come in handy. After all, as Dr Surakiart said – and I couldn’t agree more – we Thais have this very bizarre mentality of putting more trust on outsiders than those in our midst.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Someone should take up thePM's challenge

Someone should take up the challenge by Premier Yingluck Shinawatra: Go out and ask farmers whether their lives are better off because of the controversial paddy mortgage scheme.

The prime minister doesn’t usually speak out. It was quite a surprise for me therefore to read an “exclusive interview” she gave to Thai Rath daily to mark the first anniversary of her assuming office.

PM Yingluck hasn’t really made a big fuss over her having been made the country’s chief executive for 365 days now. She didn’t offer her own assessment to the public. She made no public appearance to answer questions about her performance so far. She was spared a House censure debate from the opposition which has postponed the motion until an unknown date. And her popularity hasn’t suffered. Not if you consider all the recent polls reasonably accurate, that is.

It may seem strange but Thailand’s first female premier isn’t even expected to respond to the most controversial policy issue so far. That’s why it is highly significant that she gave the clearest statement yet in an interview with Thailand’s mass-circulation paper on the issue, without so much as hitting the headlines although it contains some very new elements to the issue.

Her boldest statement was: “The government policy on this issue never said it would make a profit. It’s a policy that is in itself a loss but it will boost farmers’ income.”

Therefore, she insisted, even if the paddy pledging policy suffered a loss, “it should be acceptable” because it would enrich farmers and thereby boost local consumption.

But she also admitted that some missteps might have been made. “Nobody can do everything right,” she said, adding that all the way from the prime minister down to all Cabinet members couldn’t possibly oversee the whole operations

“because many factors are involved in the process, all the way from rice farmers to rice-mills.”

Then came the real challenge from her: Why hasn’t anybody gone back to the rice fields to ask farmers whether their livelihood has improved as a result of that policy? Why is it that only some groups of people have been asked of their opinion on the issue?

The premier insisted that the current massive rice stock has depressed prices. “But that’s because we have only launched the scheme a few months ago. Wait 8 months from now, we will witness the world rice price rise much higher than it is now,” she claimed.

But isn’t Thailand losing its top position as rice exporter? If you were surprised, the premier wasn’t. She said Thai farmers could at most plant two paddy crops a year while countries like Vietnam and India have been growing more rice. “So, naturally we can’t so anything about it. They have overtaken Thailand in the world market as a matter of course,” she added.

I am sure a good number of critics who have taken up the controversy to criticize the government’s mishandling of the scheme would be anxious to question the premier over her logic on these points. But then, she didn’t get any follow-up questions on her claims and most of her statement went unchallenged.

Whether you agree with her or not isn’t the point. The real question is why the country’s leader has chosen not to engage in discussions on this vital issue in public forums that will benefit the people.

And, more important, why has nobody actually taken up the premier’s challenge to really ask farmers whether they are better off with the policy? Many critics have claimed that only a small number of “elite” farmers are the real beneficiaries of the plan and that the real gainers are the politicians.

If her Cabinet members haven’t given her the whole picture, those who know otherwise are obliged to keep our prime minister up to date or else the big risk for the country is that her confidence might be misplaced. And that could be dangerous indeed.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Amsterdam and Thaksin: End of lobbying contract?

Here is an item from Legal Times blog on a recent move by Robert Amsterdam on his relationship with Thaksin Shinawatra. Amsterdam says he is still a supporter of the "red shirts" but isn't quite clear about his role as Thaksin's lobbyist in the future:

Firm Quits U.S. Lobbying for Former Thai Prime Minister
A small international law firm has ended its lobbying relationship with the former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Amsterdam & Partners on Monday submitted a lobbying termination report that says the firm's government advocacy work for Thaksin ended on June 30, two years after it began. The firm provided "counsel and guidance with respect to Mr. Thaksin's interest in Washington, DC and abroad," contacting the U.S. Justice, State and Treasury departments, according to congressional records. Amsterdam & Partners partner Andrew Durkovic in D.C. was the lobbyist on the account.

Robert Amsterdam, the founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners, said the firm has done "virtually nothing" in the United States for Thaksin, a billionaire who has lived in self-imposed exile after he was ousted during a military coup in 2006. The firm, which has offices in Washington and London, has focused most of its attention abroad on helping Thaksin and Thailand's "red shirt" protest movement, which supports the former prime minister. Amsterdam & Partners, which used to be known as Amsterdam & Peroff, in 2011 filed a petition to the International Criminal Court in The Hague urging prosecutors to investigate crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the 2010 Thai government crackdown against the red shirts.

"We do these filings out of an abundance of caution," Amsterdam said, adding that Thaksin remains a client of the firm.

It is unclear how much Thaksin has paid the firm. All of the quarterly lobbying reports Amsterdam & Partners submitted to Congress for Thaksin say the firm received less than $5,000, but they do not give an exact amount. Amsterdam declined to say how much Thaksin has given the firm.

Thaksin is scheduled to visit the United States in August to promote U.S. investment opportunities in Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported on Tuesday. The former prime minister, who was convicted in absentia on a conflict-of-interest charge brought in Thailand, secured a visa to travel to the United States, which generally won't let convicted felons enter the country.

Amsterdam said his firm didn't assist Thaksin in obtaining the visa and isn't involved with the trip.

Posted by Andrew Ramonas on July 31, 2012 at 03:36 PM in Lobbying

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Abhisit turns red!

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the opposition leader, delivered a surprise blow this evening when he put on a red T-shirt and declared: "Red is everybody's colour. I am reclaiming red because this colour doesn't belong to any particular group of people in this country."
The Democrat leader was apparently launching a counter-move in his major speech last night announcing that the ongoing conflict isn't between political parties or colours. "It's a battle between the people doing the right thing and those who are bent on doing evil. It's between those who want to do things for the country and those trying to do things to benefit their own relatives," he said.

It's an obvious counter-attack from Abhisit who has come under a renewed assault from the ruling Pheu Thai Party claiming that he had dodged army conscription. Defence Minsiter ACM Sukampol Suwannathat has taken the trouble to lead the latest attack on the opposition leader by producing army's documents to show that Abhisit had been dubious about his conscription. The opposition has threatened to sue him for defamation.
Now, if Abhisit wears red, would Thaksin Shinawatra wear blue?

Yingluck says govt isn't in retreat

If you think the Yingluck government has been beating a retreat, think again. Or that's what the premier said yesterday.

She told a major gathering of Pheu Thai MPs that by stalling on the constitutional amendments and withdrawal of the "reconciliation bill" from Parliament, her government wasn't "backing out" at all. In fact, it's the other way around. "We are moving full steam ahead," she declared.

The "tactical move" that may be interpreted in certain quarters as a retreat, she said, was merely to create an atmosphere of reconciliation -- and avoiding any confrontation.

It's obvious that the powers-that-be are shifting their power game. The strategy is to calm down and wait for the right moment to attack. Her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, speaking through a tele-conferencing system on the same day, told his MPs that they must adhere to a "cooling down" strategy so that the Yingluck government could operate for a lengthy period of time.

The clear adjustment of tactics is to keep the government afloat for as long as possible so that the main objectives could be achieved without disruption.

Without a doubt, Pheu Thai leaders have come to realize that every day that they remain in power means the continued weakening of opposition Democrat Party.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Constitutional Court's verdict adds new ambiguities

First, there was euphoria on both sides. Then, there was doubt. Now, the protagonists are set for another showdown.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling last Friday was initially hailed by both the ruling Pheu Thai Party and opposition Democrats as well as their respective supporters as being a compromise that should calm down the country’s tense political atmosphere.

The government side praised the court for rejecting the opponents’ petition to rule that the ruling party’s move to amend the constitution was constitutional and that it was aimed at overthrowing the country’s democratic system.

The judges said there was no evidence to back up the claim since the petitioners were only “anticipating” a scenario which wasn’t supported by any substantial actions.

The opponents, on the other hand, were delighted that the government and the ruling party could not rewrite the whole charter without a prior referendum.

At one point during the aftermath of the verdict reading, some analysts even suggested that the court’s ruling was a “win-win” decision for all sides concerned. These academics said the court had finally come up with “way out for society.”

But hardly had a day passed when both sides began to cast doubts on just what the verdict actually meant.

The first question is: Can the Pheu Thai Party and supporters proceed with a vote in the third, and final reading, of the constitutional amendments to set up a new constitutional drafting assembly to rewrite the charter?

Nobody can come up with a clear answer to that question. The court’s verdict “suggested” that since the current constitution was put into force by a referendum, therefore any attempt to change any part should first seek approval from the public through another referendum.

“Is that an opinion or a judgment?” asked Samart Kaewmeechai, chairman of the Constitution Amendment Panel in the House.

Another related question: And if a new referendum is to be held on the issue, should it be held before or after the new constitution draft is completed?

Yet another follow-up question is: If a referendum is to be held, what question is to be put to the public?

The verdict made it clear that if the ruling party wants to make changes to the constitution, it could do it on an “article-by-article” basis, not a total rewrite. In that case, the government-backed party with a majority in the House would have to start the process all over again – back to Square One, so to say.

Some Pheu Thai Party members say that route would in fact provide a speedier process for them to amend the constitution since they have the majority votes in the House and could push for all the changes they want without the added burden of having to hold a referendum.

But there could be a trap there. Some government MPs fear that if they followed that option, their opponents could file a new petition to the Constitutional Court yet again, arguing that Pheu Thai was deliberating challenging the spirit of the current constitution.

“We might fall into a new trap – whether we proceed with voting on the third reading of the pending constitutional amendments or if we restart the process to go the route of changing the charter article by article,” another senior Pheu Thai Party leader said.

Even those against Pheu Thai’s moves are beginning to wonder how the ambiguities of the verdict could be cleared up so that they could not be exploited by the powers-that-be to tinker with the constitution to suit their ultimate political aims.

Now, as you can see, things could change overnight. The initial joy by most parties concerned have has turned into skepticism and a sense of desperation.

“Victory” for the political parties, however short-lived and illusory, doesn’t necessarily translate into “victory” for the people.

That’s because this is Thailand and every legal ruling is plagued by all shades of interpretations that end up as stalemates. This is just the latest, not the last.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The danger of solving one crisis with another crisis

Another “constitutional crisis” in the offing this week? You must be joking. We don’t consider a “crisis” a crisis anymore. It has become just an ordinary part of your political life.

The origins of a crisis are quite easy to come by in Thailand’s political circus these days. All you need is for a politician to point an accusing finger at his opponent and starts filing a complaint with one of the “independent agencies” for a ruling.

It doesn’t even have to be a political issue. The complaint could be about anything at all as long as it pits one against the other and that a “third party” has the constitutional right to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

The first sign of a “crisis” is when one of the parties concerned begins to believe that he or she stands to lose in the process. The first salvo would be against the independent agency involved. It would be portrayed as being biased or leaning towards the other side.

The forming of the crisis continues into the second stage even before the first hearing on the case begins. Supporters of one side would start to give interviews with a threatening tone: If the verdict doesn’t come down in favour of us, we will mobilize people to protest.

The party that is convinced that it would win the case will trumpet the whole exercise as the process of real democracy that the other side is trying to undermine.

It used to be that members of the independent agency would keep mum, believing that as long as they carry out their duties strictly according to the law of the land, the public would understand and no amount of public outcry from one side or the other would affect their work.

But that’s not the case anymore. Even members of “independent agencies” set up under the constitution aren’t quite sure about the public being on their side only if they do what they are supposed to. “The public,” it seems, has been split into factions by the relentless pressure from parties to the conflict – so much so that it has become a general belief that if you keep quiet in a storm of verbal exchange, you might be admitting the allegations they thrust upon you.

That’s why we have recently witnessed prosecutors, judges and other members of the judicial branch joining the fray of public discourse, which, unfortunately, has been mostly negative. The judicial officials have felt the need to explain their position so that some segments of the public would not be swayed by pure self-serving politicians.

This week, the Constitutional Court is holding hearings over allegations that the ruling Pheu Thai Party’s attempt to amend the constitution is “unconstitutional.”

It’ classic confrontation Thai political style once again. The ruling party says the current constitution isn’t democratic enough. They promised the electorate that once elected, they would push for charter changes. Now that they have the majority in the House, they would fulfill their election pledge.

The opposition and some senators say that the ruling party’s move is aimed at rewriting the “whole” constitution which, according to this line of argument, is “unconstitutional” because changes could be made only article by article.

Of course, both could right and both could be wrong. So, the opponents to the government brought it up to the Constitutional Court to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

As soon as that happened, the ruling party said they sensed a conspiracy which, they claimed, could lead to the dissolution of the Pheu Thai Party. That means the ruling party thinks it could lose the battle and is doing everything possible to tell the judges that the red-shirt people won’t tolerate that kind of verdict. They say it’s not a threat. It’s simply a statement of intention.

The Constitutional Court is inviting both sides to produce their witnesses and written statements. It is due to hand down a decision soon. No doubt, the judges, once again, have come under intense pressure, not for the first time, of course.

Another crisis? No, to some Thais who can’t bother to follow political news with any great interest, it’s just another hiccup.

And when you treat a serious ailment as a mild cold, that’s when the country has been plunged into a real time warp. We don’t learn from the past. We can’t handle the present. We can’t see the future. It’s pitch dark out there.