By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG
AS A FORMER leader of political groups standing up against past governments for their failure to run the country properly – to the point that could have plunged the nation into failed-state status – Suriyasai Katasila realises only too well how vital it is that reform takes place.
Under the military-installed government, Suriyasai, now a director of the Thai Reform Institute at Rangsit University, still keeps an eye on the administration’s promise to deliver reform. And like other observers, Suriyasai believes there will never be a better time than now to make it happen, as the government has absolute power that no one can compete against.
“What matters most is the understanding of the root cause of the problems and the need for reform,” said Suriyasai, a former co-leader of the now-defunct People’s Alliance for Democracy, and the former People’s Reform Democratic Committee (PDRC).
In the eyes of Suriyasai, reform is not unprecedented as the country has been through such a process before in modern politics – during the civil-based political optimism of 1997.
At that time, when he was still a political activist with a watchdog group, Suriyasai witnessed the new constitution addressing civil-based politics as well as creating a new political relationship among concerned parties for the first time since the politically turbulent era of the late 1970s. This gave hope that the country would be reformed for the better with a higher proportion of power in people’s hands.
However, it did not turn out as expected. The country’s reform at that time failed because the new political relationship did not change as wished, partly due to the bureaucracy still remaining too strong, while new legal mechanisms were not put in place as hoped. In addition, the new system was corrupt with new political capitalists, Suriyasai claimed.
As a result, instead of the country moving forward towards reform with more power in people’s hands, it moved backwards with the problem becoming more deep-rooted and worsening.
“The 1997 constitution was dubbed the reform constitution as it was pushed by the people and devoted space for the people. However, it became a thing of disappointment and that’s the reason why we call for reform every time we have a chance,” Suriyasai said.
That call reached its height in the past decade when the PDRC publicly addressed it in its demands to the Yingluck government, with the phrase “reform before an election”.
The political conflict continued until the military eventually staged a coup on May 22, 2014. The military addressed the need for the country to undergo reform as a reason for staging the coup.
And since then, reform has been officially addressed and implemented by the military-installed government.
“Following violent incidents in Bangkok and several areas countrywide, resulting in a number of deaths and casualties of innocent people as well as damage to properties to the point that they could affect national security, the National Council for Peace and Order [NCPO] needs to take control of the country from May 22 onwards in order to make the situation return to normal, bring love and unity to people … and reform politics and the economy as well as other concerned elements so that just and fair treatment could be brought to all concerned,” reads the first National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announcement issued on May 22.
After the military took control of the country for two months, the reform was officially addressed in the interim charter’s Article 19 as part of the junta’s three prime duties. The other two are administering the country and promoting reconciliation and unity among the people.
It was also addressed in Article 27 as the newly established National Reform Council’s prime duty. Eleven reform agendas were lined up including politics and the economy.
In line with the interim charter, the NRC was officially appointed by the NCPO in October the same year and began working on the 11 reform agendas.
From there, the 250-member council expanded the agendas into 37, under which the country’s comprehensive reform blueprints were produced.
But as it dissolved following the vote-down of the first charter draft, the council then submitted its reform blueprints to its successor, the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), which was appointed in October 2015 to steer the NRC’s work into action.
According to NRSA vice chairman Alongkorn Poonlaboot, the NRSA was tasked with pushing forward the NRC’s work. So it came up with numerous implementation plans including new regulations to implement the agendas.
The 37 agendas have been expanded to 142 proposals, outnumbering the original blueprints, and prompting questions about the NRSA’s work focus.
In an exclusive interview with The Nation, Alongkorn said that the reform work under the NRSA did have a focus.
Almost 70 per cent of the NRSA’s proposals mainly focus on “fixing” what is broken, he said, with 20 per cent focused on building up on existing strengths and 10 per cent centred on creating something new.
“Reform is not revolution, nor evolution,” Alongkorn said. “We base our work on our country’s reality and like an engine, it’s almost broken. That’s the reason why our reform effort focuses a lot on this part.”
Besides a clear goal to move forward, Alongkorn claims that the reform work efficient mechanisms and procedures to support it, such as the tri-party whips between the NRSA, the government, and the National Legislative Assembly, which help turn the body’s plans into regulations.
In addition, there is a “Mr Reform” in all concerned ministries who turn the NRSA’s plans into action at an administration level, he said, adding that the NRSA has also forged a civil network of more than 70 civil based organisations to help push its reform plans forward in the civil sector.
But more importantly, the reform work has been addressed in the supreme charter draft as one main chapter, which will help guarantee its continuity and sustainability, he said, and it will be linked to other necessary elements such as the 20-year national strategic plan.
“In the past, we did have the idea to reform the country but it failed, partly because it lacked a systematic and continuous management,” Alongkorn said. “I can see the efforts in many governments but it hardly happened. For instance, the attempt to establish the corruption court has long been an ambition of the country, but it never happened. This time is different because we have a clear goal, supportive mechanisms, plus assertive procedures which will be continued and sustained.”
Nevertheless, Alongkorn said that the NRSA’s work had been hindered by time constraints. Under the charter draft, the NRSA will be dissolved after four months of the charter promulgation. This is because a new law on reform will be in place as well as a new reform committee.
Despite the issues facing the NRSA, Alongkorn remains positive about the country’s reform effort.
He said the government’s newly established umbrella committee for reform, reconciliation and national strategy would help prioritise and expedite the work.
It is what he called “the prime mechanism in transition” that will help carry on the work and pass it on to more permanent mechanisms as addressed in the new charter.
“For me, I’m happy for what we have done,” he said. “Reform is infinite. It needs to be worked on continuously from generation to generation so that we can grow stronger and stronger. As we have managed to address it in the supreme law, I count this as a big success.”
Education reform advocate Wiwat Salyakamthorn also believes that now is the best chance to achieve reform given the NCPO wielding absolute power to help push for changes. As reform means big changes, there is always a tendency that it is strongly objected to at the time of its implementation, he said, and that’s part of the reason why reform in the past often hit a stumbling block and hardly went anywhere.
Wiwat, who is a member of both the NRC and the NRSA on education, said from the beginning of the current process reformers and other involved parties identified the problems facing the country.
Besides the impaired bureaucratic system, they could see that the most problematic issue was the inequality facing many people, and human development was thus seriously needed, he said.
To realise that, the reformers and the charter drafters helped turn reform agendas into the country’s supreme law and address issues of most importance, including education in the new charter draft, in a bid to guarantee the work’s continuity and sustainability.
“This is like setting a milestone to determine the reform path we will go on from now on,” Wiwat said.
However, Wiwat cautioned that the reform work did not belong to the reformers only. It’s actually everyone’s business to make it happen, and as such public participation and cooperation in the process was crucial.
“It’s about your life, so it’s your business that you too should help make it happen,” he said.
Suriyasai agreed with Wiwat, saying the reformers have been on the right track. They said eventually the issues of most importance and the work priorities would be settled and addressed.
As a civil politics advocate, Suriyasai just hopes that enough space will be opened up for civil-based politics during this reform era once again.
“In today’s world, you cannot ignore the people, and their participation any more,” he said.
Box: The government has its own committees working on reform
Apart from the National Reform Council (NRC) and the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), the government has set up other committees that touch on the reform work to a certain degree.
The first is the committee for steering and expediting the implementation of the government’s policies, called the Kor Khoh Ror, chaired by former PM’s Office minister Suwapan Tanyuwattana. As per the minutes of its first meeting on January 16, 2015, the panel was tasked with expediting the work of all ministries on the government’s key policies, including its 11 policies and duties related to reconciliation, reform and administration.
Later, the government set up another committee chaired by the premier himself, called the Kor Khoh Nor, to steer and expedite the government’s “immediate policies”. According to the minutes of its first meeting on February 23, 2015, this panel was tasked with following up and expediting the government’s immediate policies and report directly to the PM.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) also established a committee on January 9, 2015, to steer its NCPO’s strategies. Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan chaired this panel, called the Kor Khoh Yor.
The spokesman’s team later clarified the issue in relation to the authority and jurisdiction of these three committees. According to the team, the three panels’ work would be synchronised. The Kor Khoh Nor committee will be working on the government’s most immediate policies through the administration’s mechanisms as well through the private sector, which is represented in the panel. This is based on instructions from the PM.
The Kor Khor Ror committee will follow up on the government’s prime policies, assess them and report to the Cabinet every month. It will also prepare the government’s performance report, which will be handed to the National Legislative Assembly and later revealed to the public.
The NCPO's Kor Khoh Yor will follow up on and assess the government’s work that is in line with the NCPO’s strategies. It is also tasked with reaching operation officers and clearing obstacles for measures lagging in the bureaucratic system.
On November 17, 2015, nevertheless, the Cabinet decided to set up another committee for steering and reforming the administration. This committee has the authority to propose policies, work approach as well as measures for implementation. It also supervises and follows up on the implementation of proposals from concerned agencies. This committee has six sub committees, chaired by deputy PMs, which are responsible for the following:
Human development and education;
Economy and infrastructure;
Government administration, rule of law and reconciliation;
Social security, natural resources and environment;
Tourism and sports.
This committee has addressed the steering and reform agendas most concretely from the government’s side, but so far nobody is clear about how different its work is from that of the NRSA.
On January 17 this year, a super committee for reform, reconciliation and national strategy, or Por Yor Por, was set up to synthesise all the government’s key work, namely reform, reconciliation and the layout of the government’s 20-year strategy, which is currently scattered among different agencies, including the NRSA.
Accoording to Alongkorn, the NRSA has managed to submit over 100 reform steering proposals to the government for consideration and implementation, several of which have been turned into new laws already.
The NRSA has had 40 proposals or so to push foreward, but following the latest instruction by the Por Yor Por committee, it would readjust the rest of its work, regrouping reform agendas at hand and lumping them into 27 agendas.