Thursday, January 10, 2013

This will be the year of living precariously

The year 2013 will prove to be highly eventful for Thailand – with the proposed constitutional amendments topping the list of “potentially explosive issues” followed closely by economic “time-bombs” in the form of the Bt300/day minimum wage and the costly and controversial rice pledging scheme. Somewhere on top of the list of “hot topics” is the ruling by the International Court of Justice over the Preah Vihear temple. Popping up all over the place in the political minefield is the widespread corrupt practices tied to the government’s various populist schemes which could blow up anytime in the course of the ongoing investigations by various social pressure groups. And just under the surface of the political vulnerable landscape lies the “reconciliation bill” which has become a taboo of sorts. No sooner had the draft law been submitted to the House when huge and strong protest from both within the legislative body and independent groups virtually sent the proposal to the backburner, waiting to be revived at another, unpredictable time. This will be the year when Premier Yingluck Shinawatra will have to prove that she is more than just her elder brother’s sister. She will have to decide whether to make it in politics or to go down into history as a seat-warmer who could charm one side of the severely divided society but remains an enigma for the rest of the country. The charter amendment issue could be her undoing if Yingluck doesn’t handle it in such a way that she could really fulfil the pledge to make the change a “democratic one” that will really involve all sectors of the population. Thaksin’s public push for the referendum clashes with some red-shirt leaders’ call for a dash toward the third and final reading of the charter change bill that will entail the rewriting of the whole constitution through an elected assembly for this purpose. Yingluck has so far appeared to be sitting on the defence, either because she isn’t sure what’s the fuss all about or that she is working to patch up the differences between various groups, both within the Pheu Thai Party and the red-shirt movement. Political instability that could rock her government comes from both the charter issue and the upcoming verdict of the ICJ over the Phreah Vihear case. Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul kicked off a controversy at the beginning of the year by suggesting that the Thai people should be resigned to the fact that Thailand won’t win the case. “For us, the expected ruling is either status quo or a defeat,” he said, prompting strong criticisms that he was throwing in the towel even before the fight begins. Thai and Cambodian officials and lawyers are to testify on the case in the middle of April, this year. Surapong first said he won’t be at the hearings and the Thai delegation will be headed by Thai Ambassador to the Hague Virachai Plasai while his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong will be making a visible presence there. The Thai foreign minister changed his mind a few days later and announced that he would be personally heading the Thai delegation. Depending on how the government handles the verdict, things could get fluid. Attempts will intensify from the government’s critics to whip up public nationalistic sentiments that could turn ugly. The combination of domestic conflict and cross-border tension could become a combustible mix. Negative reactions from various business segments over the enforcement (beginning Jan 1, this year) of the Bt300/day minimum age in most parts of the country will get louder as more medium and small-sized firms feel the pinch of the additional financial burden. The rising cost of living plus sporadic reports of labour lay-offs in certain industries to add to the grim political stirrings. Any one of these potentially explosive issues could force a confrontation between those for and against the government on the streets, especially if the move to get Thaksin home without facing judicial punishment is renewed again. That would be tantamount to igniting a real political conflagration. Of course, Premier Yingluck is aware of all the potentially calamitous scenarios. How she defused all those time-bombs by keeping a proper distance from her own brother and all the various contentious factions within our party and affiliated groupings will decide how much she could really be her real self

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