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.