Friday, July 19, 2019

The monkey that became entangled in a fishing net

Jan 08. 2019
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By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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An anti-junta academic described the political efforts of the Prayut administration as like “a monkey using a fishing net”. The old Thai saying warns that when someone grapples with something he has little knowledge of, the situation can rapidly worsen.

The metaphor is perfect, except for the fact that in the Thai political context, it’s not just the monkey that is suffering. The entangled fishing net is threatening to drag down not one, not two, but several of the players involved. Whether the monkey is guilty of a malicious intent or not does not matter – its actions have created a big mess all the same.

For starters, how can the government preach “reconciliation” one day and insist that the 2014 coup “will not be wasted” the next? It has to be one agenda or the other, right? And if “not wasting” the coup meant stamping out corruption and creating transparency in politics, then events indicate that little if any progress has been made on that front.

Next, that three political parties which were supposed to be allies are now having to fight one another in the election is a great mystery. The Democrats, Palang Pracharat and Action Coalition for Thailand will engage in fierce battle in several constituencies. If Pheu Thai does its homework properly in those constituencies, it can sneak in and potentially grab a fair number of seats.

The Democrats, after helping Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha into power, are on the verge of becoming his Waterloo. They could be a major post-election variable, potentially refusing to back his nomination for PM and helping place Pheu Thai back in power. Prayut and Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva have arrived at this point because the former has done several things the latter does not like, and, in many cases, Abhisit cannot be blamed for not liking them.

The Action Coalition for Thailand Party, meanwhile, could have just been incorporated into Palang Pracharat, making it a formidable anti-Thaksin Party. (If the term “the coup shall not be wasted” referred to the Shinawatras, that is.) 

No doubt events behind the scenes prevented such a convergence, but those events should not distract us. What should worry the “coup shall not be wasted” believers is that the pro-Shinawatra parties are more united, set to win seats, and ready to vote in Parliament for one prime ministerial nominee.

The birth of the pro-Shinawatra parties stemmed from the “every vote counts” principle. The system is laudable, since votes that go to candidates who narrowly lose will still count. However, most people suspect that it was introduced to empower “losing” votes in Shinawatra-dominated areas in the North and Northeast. If that is the idea, proponents of the system must have forgotten that many pro-Shinawatra candidates narrowly lost in previous elections as well. 

Then we have the luxury-watch controversy, which has been handled badly. What has disturbed many Thais is the same old, dismal textbook approach to charges of corruption against members of the government. Those charges, without fail, are dubbed “conspiracies” and those at the receiving end call for “receipts” as proof.

A new era of political transparency – if that’s what was meant by “the coup shall not be wasted” – would be one in which evidence-based doubt alone prompted the accused to resign or be removed by a superior. We are nowhere near being close to it, and given the cutthroat political situation at the moment, graft charges will continue to be heavily politicised with leaders overly protective of subordinates.

A golden opportunity has been missed. Grasping it would have created a great example of how the political sphere should respond to corruption charges or public mistrust. As it turns out, a lot of people have been too busy protecting their jobs instead of actually doing their jobs.

Adding to the mess, a constitutional technicality is threatening the election date, linked with a timeframe that is up for interpretation and, if violated, may raise serious questions about the democratic exercise.

A monkey grappling with a fishing net is an analogy that deals primarily with technicality. In the Thai political context, however, the term should involve morality, too. We can’t take morality out of politics because, after all, politics has a tendency to turn people into what they once hated. And if that happens, we all drown. 

Lack of progress on political transparency and integrity may be the most serious consequence of the entangled fishing net. Not only has the monkey been pulled under and drowned, but it has dragged others down with it. 

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