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.