Saturday, March 31, 2012

Terror rocks three provinces in one day

Car bombs exploded in three provinces today -- Yala, Hat Yai of Songkhla and Pattani with heavy casualties. All signs pointed to terror-related activities. At least ten died in Yala where multiple explosions hit the central area of the town. Five were killed in Hat Yai and over 300 injured when a bomb rocked the parking lot under the centrally-located Lee Gardens hotel right in the heart of this commercial centre. Another southern province, Pattani, also experienced an explosion. No casualties were reported from there.

In Hat Yai, the local mayor confirmed this evening that a bomb had been planted although the local governor said it had yet to be determined whether it was an act of terrorism. Earlier reports had suggested that a gas leak had caused the accident.

The three major incidents in the southern provinces underline the urgency of the security situation in the South, demanding prompt and a comprehensive review of the current measures in the country's most sensitive area. The devastating bombings show that despite all the talk about "successful" official work in the south, the government cannot claim to be in control of the situation.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Kittirat versus Prasarn: It's not exactly an 'argumentative' thing

Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Kittirat na Ranong appears disturbed by an "argumentative" central bank. And he seems to suggest that the central bank governor, Prasarn Trairatvorakul, should 'argue less with me."

It's all about Kittirat's public statement the other day that he would like to seen the Bank of Thailand pursue a policy that would make the baht weaker so that Thai exporters will stand to benefit. He also said the central bank should bring down interest rates to stimulate the economy.

Prasarn has publicly said that the baht exchange rate, now under the "managed float" system is working fine and any attempt to tamper with the exchange rate would only distort the situation unnecessarily since the country's economy is picking up nicely now. He also "argues" that the current interest rates are appropriate and are among the lowest in the region anyway.

Kittirat told reporters yesterday: "I am not only the finance minister. I am also in charge of the country's economy as a whole.I think the central bank should argue less with me. Things would be just fine if the Bank of Thailand listens more to me..."

I have always believed that the central bank should be "argumentative" especially when it feels duty-bound to make its stand clear vis-a-vis the politicians.

Being courageous isn't exactly the same as being argumentative, I think.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

National reconciliation talks: Mostly lip service

If politics is too important to be left to politicians, then the ongoing “national reconciliation” effort is too crucial to be assigned to parties with their own narrow political agenda.
The much-heralded attempt to reach a national reconciliation formula is stuck in the mud. You can’t move forward because all sorts of roadblocks have been built. You can’t move backward because you will drown in dirty cesspools that had been dug by the politicians themselves.
All the political groups in the face-off have built their own bunkers ready for another protracted confrontation. They have been accumulating their own ammunition for the new battle. If the opposing parties mean what they say, they could pool their respective resources and push the country out of the stalemate.
But if they decide to employ their resources only to win the political battle in a zero-sum game – as if becoming increasingly evident – then disaster is awaiting just around the corner.
Deputy Premier Chalerm Yoobamrung says he has drawn up his own 6-article bill that he describes as a “national reconciliation act.” The House Committee on National Reconciliation, headed by former coup-maker Gen Sonthi Bunyaratakalin, has its own version of a proposal, based on a study submitted by a supposedly “neutral” think tank: King Prajadhipok’s Institute, part of which calls for the abrogation of the agencies set up after the September, 2006 coup.
The study also includes a proposal to grant amnesty to people involved in past political protests.
Some ruling Pheu Thai MPs seem to have welcomed the suggestions but Deputy Premier Chalerm sort of poured cold water on it, saying that the formula won’t lead to national reconciliation because it’s not legally binding. Of course, Chalerm is pursuing his own agenda which may cut across the multitude of steps that needed to be taken before any concrete result to let Thaksin come home soon could be seen.
From another circle, red-shirt leader Thida Tavornseth set down her down condition for any reconciliation. She declared that any move that leaves only the red-shirts guilty of breaking the law wouldn’t be acceptable.
Gen Sonthi himself is highly ambivalent. He may head the House reconciliation committee but he isn’t quite sure where he stands on some of the crucial issues involved. Asked to comment on an idea to grant amnesty to ousted prime minister Thaksin, whose administration was toppled in the coup led by him, the general-turned-politician steadfastly refused to offer his opinion one way or the other. He is in a great dilemma: If he agrees with the concept, he would be accused of backtracking and having staged a “bad coup.” But if he speaks out against the proposal, he would be seen as being against national reconciliation.
The opposition Democrats, meanwhile, have cast doubts all along on the Pheu Thai’s move on reconciliation, arguing that the sole purpose of the acceleration of the legal proceedings in this regard is nothing but to find a legitimate means to help Thaksin come home without having to face any punishment.
Cynics see Chalerm’s proposed bill and the ongoing action to hold an election to form a Constitution Drafting Assembly as a coordinated effort to speed up the former premier’s return – a move that threatens to plunge the country into another round of explosive confrontation.
Of course, the Democrats continue to talk about reconciliation – on their terms. They insist on the “rule of law” and “transparency” meaning that violators of criminal laws must be taken to court and amnesty could be offered only to “political offenders.”
In other words, no middle grounds could be found so far – and the prospect of genuine national reconciliation is getting dimmer by the day.
All that politicians are willing to pay for national reconciliation is, sad to say, mostly “lip service.”

Friday, March 23, 2012

Good questions that produce no answers

It's the hottest story of the week, perhaps, when Maj Gen Sanan Kachornprasart rose to ask Gen Sonthi Bunyaratakalin on Wednesday in a "national reconciliation" seminar: Who's really behind the 2006 coup?

Sanan said he had posed the three main questions about the coup "so that truth can emerge to enhance national reconciliation."

He wanted the coup leader to tell the public once and for all whether Gen Prem Tinsulnaonda, the privy council president, was behind the coup as had been rumoured or not?

Gen Sonthi was probably caught off-guard. He is the chairman of the House committee on national reconciliation. He has been insisting that he won't talk about the past and will only look to the future.

But when Sanan posed the questions publicly, raising quite a political stir, Sonthi evaded the issue by saying that there won't be any positive outcome from his answering those questions.

"I will probably carry some of the secrets to my grave," he said.

Sanan later told reporters had according to his intelligence, Gen Prem wasn't involved in the coup. "That's why I want Gen Sonthi to make it clear once and for all," he said.

Sonthi has since hit back with his own question for Sanan: "I would like to know who had told him to raise those questions to me..."

Good questions don't necessarily promot good answers. That's politics.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

If Kwanchai has his way, Thaksin will 'sneak' back home over Songkran

Kwanchai Praipana, a red-shirt leader in the Northeast, says he will help former premier Thaksin Shinawatra return to Thailand from Laos during the upcoming Songkran festival in April.

His proposed method is simple and direct: "I have mobilized red shirt supporters from all the provinces in the Northeast to welcome Khun Thaksin to cross the border from Laos into Thailand and we will transport him all the way back to Bangkok."

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul, commenting on that move this morning, wasn't quite sure that this is the right way to help his boss come home.

"I haven't heard about Khun Kwanchai's plan. But I believe if Khun Thaksin were to come home, he would do it in a more graceful manner, certainly not sneaking back home like that."

Thaksin himself has been flip-flopping about his come-home plan. He has wavered between "I don't have to come home. I am very happy living abroad" and "I would like to go home this year."

Whether he wants to "sneak" back in or not is another problem.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thirayuth is back: Grass-roots politics edges out conservatives

Well-known social critic Thirayuth Boonmee gave a detailed analysis of the current political situation, pointing out that the "red shirts" are gaining ground because of their grass-roots awakening while the "conservatives" have lost out "because they talk about abstract things."

He said if former premier Thaksin Shinawatra do not step up pressure or push for a confrontation, violence could still be averted.

"Thaksin is more of a marketing promoter than a democracy leader. He considers the grass-roots people his regular customers," Thirayuth said.

He also said that Thai politics is moving in a direction that may see the red-shirts representative the only dominant power pillar. But he also expressed concern that populist politics could break up Thailand's traditional social structure that could affect various long-established institutions.

He said the conservatives would resist such a trend but "a military coup" woul be the tool of the last resort.

The monarchy, Thirayuth said, could survive based on "symbolic influence" rather than increasing royal authority.

Thirayuth said Premier Yingluck Shinawatr is good-looking, smart and photogenic and has managed to gain a positive image among the local people.

He advised opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to "write more than speak" because he could then articulate his thinking in a more effective way.

Thirayuth was back wearing his signature sweater while meeting the press to deliver his analysis of the prevailing political situation.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Political games that retired generals play

It’s the mother of all ironies when the old coup-maker of 2006, Gen Sonthi Bunyaratakalin, was made the head of a House committee for national reconciliation which may include a move to undo all the things that the coup had claimed to achieve. And he doesn’t seem too bothered with that.
Gen Sonthi’s public position now is: “Don’t ask me about the past. We must only look into the future.”
It’s a new paradox when the current defence minister, ACM Sukhampol Suwannathat, is compelled to complain that reporters keep asking him about the possibility of another coup when in fact “all military commanders know what’s right what’s wrong.”
ACM Sukhampol, who was one of the victims of the 2006 coup, has made it his public stand to insist: “The future won’t be a repeat of the past.” What that really means remains a mystery.
Have the two generals finally agreed to patch things up? Not really.
But both in their own ways are trying to ensure their own political survival by burying the past: Sonthi trying to play the role of a national reconciliator while Sukhampol is attempting to rein in the military establishment without provoking them into a new round of confrontation.
The defence minister, known to be close to former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has softened his approach towards the top brass, especially Army Commander-in-Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha. He has backed down, at least for now, from his initial demand that the defence council act be amended so that the politically-appointed defence minister has full authority over the hiring and firing of military personnel.
The defence council act had been introduced to precisely prevent politicians from “interfering” in military appointments by according the power of transfers of military personnel to a committee that represents the various branches of the armed forces, instead of granting that all-embracing influence on the defence minister.
This particular issue had initially threatened to pit Thaksin’s appointee to the defence ministry against the entrenched military chiefs. Sukhampol, who was moved from the transport portfolio to defence to ensure the legislative change, has more or less struck a compromise with the top brass. Power-sharing seems to have been the unannounced “middle path” between the new defence minister and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force.
Evidence of such a climb-down on both sides was ACM’s response to a reporter’s direct question: Will Army Chief Gen Prayuth be in his post until his official retirement in 2014?
“If we continue this way, there is nothing. He will be there until the end of his term. We should cut off the past. We will judge things by their present merits. We won’t dig up old stuff otherwise we can’t put an end to things…”
Perhaps, both sides have reached similar conclusions that a face-off would be mutually damaging and that the public is keeping a close watch to decide which side is more “democratic and responsive to public sentiments.”
Gen Sonthi, in his own way to rewrite history perhaps, has also officially accepted a set of proposals from the Phra Pokklao Institute (King Prajadhipok’s Institute) part of which clearly suggests that the commission set up by the coup-makers in 2006 with authority to punish “those committing actions damaging to the state” was illegitimate and its activities should be nullified. The institute wants all decisions reached by the panel to be reviewed by the normal judicial process.
In other words, if Gen Sonthi, in his new role as a politician trying to undo his own past military mistakes, endorses the proposal, it would be tantamount of condemning his own past deeds – a potentially disastrous backtracking on his own part.
If it weren’t so weird, the games being played by these two retired generals would be quite amusing. But this is no reality show. It’s about a country’s future and it affects every citizen’s life

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Headlines that could be both fun and frustrating!

It's fun -- or frustrating, depending on your mood this morning -- reading headlines in the Thai newspapers.

One says Thaksin isn't coming home this year (quoting Premier Yingluck who says she has nothing to do with that move anyway. It's an issue to be tackled by Parliament after all).

Another headline quoted Deputy PM Chalerm Yoonbamrung as saying that he was proceeding with the move and Premier Yingluck knows nothing about whether Thaksin is returning to Thailand or not.

Then a third headline cites "some insiders" as saying that Thaksin could be come as early as April once the so-called "reconciliation bill" (supposedly kept close to his chest by Chalerm) is submitted to Parliament.

So, you decide for yourself which headline to believe -- or none at all.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Proposed abolishing of independent agencies smacks of hidden agenda

Nobody is quite sure who’s behind the move to get rid of “independent agencies” in the process of rewriting the constitution. But it’s clear that it’s high on the agenda of those seeking to remove “poisonous fruit of the poisonous tree.”
Divergent views over what the new constitution should look like are of course natural. But the logic of a group of politicians with links to ruling Pheu Thai Party about doing away with the current form of the constitutional court and administration court seems somewhat bizarre .
For one thing, the concept of establishing independent agencies to create “checks and balances” against possible power abuse especially by the ruling groups was incorporated in the 1997 constitution, not the current one that was put into force after the 2006 coup.
The pro-Thaksin elements have always maintained that the 1997 charter is the country’s best-ever. There were even earlier attempts to simply replace the current charter with the 1997 version, without having going through the long, painful and expensive process of forming a constitution drafting assembly through elections as is being contemplated.
The call for the abolition of the constitutional and administration courts has therefore raised doubts over what the real intentions of the whole exercise of rewriting the charter are. In fact, some of the proposals raised by the ruling party and its associates have deepened the suspicion that the move may be aimed at helping former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand as a “free man.”
That, unfortunately, will inevitably pit the opponents against the advocates leading to another round of political confrontation that could mean more violence.
The existence of independent agencies in the past years has proved to be beneficial in many ways. For the first time, the common people could seek judicial help from the administrative court when they can’t hope to get redress from government agencies.
In fact, several landmark verdicts by the administrative court have underscored the importance of an independent judicial body that could rule on such vital social issues as environmental hazards and deep-rooted social injustices.
Without the judicial support of an administrative court, the little people would have remained under the mercy of a severely bureaucracy and political establishment that could ignore the plight of the disadvantaged and underprivileged without impunity.
The constitutional court has likewise proved to be independent and effective despite the fact that the judges had come under enormous pressure from politicians with vested interests – and who tried every possible means to wriggle out of their roles plagued by conflicts of interests.
The role of independent agencies is indispensable if the country was to move along a democratic system that puts emphasis on preventing and suppressing corruption and abuse of power. This is especially important when the charter grants the ruling party, for the sake of political stability, a high degree of authority, so much so that at one point the accusation of “parliamentary dictatorship” was not just a wild, baseless charge.
If absolute power corrupts absolutely, a charter offering the prime minister and ruling party high power must ensure “checks and balances” in the form of independent bodies that could monitor the way power is exercised by the powers-that-be. If the majority rules, the minority rights must be guaranteed.
As Thammasat University’s Rector Somkid Lertpaitoon, who once headed a constitution drafting panel, argued: “If we believe that the constitutional or administrative court should be abolished simply because a certain verdict isn’t up to the standards, then we would have to do away with the whole system of electing MPs if some people’s representatives are found to have misbehaved…..”
In other words, genuine democracy must be able to withstand the harsh and unrelenting scrutiny of any independent agencies trusted by the public.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Thaksin's Mobile Cabinet

Former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra says he can return home without having to rewrite the constitution to serve him alone.

He told a team of senior editors from the Bangkok Post and Post Today in Dubai on Feb 29 that getting back home or not wasn't his main concern. "I am happy enough living abroad," he said.

Thaksin showed the editors from Bangkok his bag containing 8 mobile telephones (picture, from Post Today)

"Since I am an ex-premier in exile, I need a mobile cabinet. I have a deputy premier named Blackberry and Cabinet members all named Iphone with deputy ministers called Nokia."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Don't go outside, political 'smog' is getting dangerous

Don’t go outside, people in the North have been warned as smog has hit a dangerous degree.
The same piece of advice if probably applicable to Thais in general over the upcoming political “smog” that is bound to descend on the country as the debate on the constitutional amendemts get under way.
Head of the Disease Control Department, Dr Pornthep Siriwanarangsan, issued this warning the other day:
“Don’t go out if you can’t see the power pole in your neighbourhood during the day. That’s a sign that the amount of small dust particles in the air has reached a dangerous level.”
My own exhortation for my friends who follow politics very closely is:
“Don’t go out if you can’t see what the debate on charter changes is all about. That’s a sign that lots of proposals for amendment are up in the air. And that could be dangerous for real democracy. Hence the special care you must take while discussing the hot issue with friends.”
This is no ordinary rewriting of the highest law of the land. It is being seen from the promoters in the ruling Pheu Thai Party as a drastic move to overhaul the whole political rules of the game to favour the dominant party and do away with checks and balances incorporated in the current constitution.
Some elements in the ruling power have already made known their final goals: Abolish the constitution court and administrative court.
Opponents see this move as a clear attempt to pave the way for former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s return and take back his political power while remnants of any possible obstacles would be wiped out in one sweep.
Advocates of the change argue that the current charter is the “poisonous fruit” of a “poisonous tree” – the 2006 coup and are clamouring for the return of the 1997 constitution which they claim are more “democratic.”
The heated debate in the joint session of parliament earlier this week pointed to the potential divisiveness of the issue – not so much whether it’s a good or bad thing to rewrite the charter but more importantly, what’s the “hidden agenda” in the whole exercise?
What appears to be “democratic” in form may in fact be not be so in substance. The proposal to have one province elect a representative to be a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDA) is basically what electoral politics is all about. What political analysts are already predicting that the outcome of such ballot casting would follow the pattern of the last general election. No matter what is said to the contrary, political parties will have considerable influence in the voting outcome.
This despite the provision that no politicians will be allowed to play any role in the election of CDA members to give the image of “non-partisan” representation so that a “truly, ideally democratic” charter could be drafted for a public referendum.
But things aren’t always what they appear in politics where the principle of “majority rules, minority rights” is often observed in its breach.
The political “smog” is therefore getting thicker – causing serious concern for me about the general health of the general public. Because you can’t see anything clear even within a few meters away in your daily debate with friends on this hotly contested issue, the possibility of further turmoil caused by a new round of confrontation between the supporters and opponents of the move is bound to intensify in the next few months.
The combination of political fog and smoke produced by both sides threatens to plunge the country down the abyss of confrontational violence yet again. So, take good care. Don’t leave home unless political visibility has improved to a reasonable degree.