Time for Hard Decisions (6 October 06)

Time for Hard Decisions By Abhisit Vejjajiva Former Leader of the Opposition (6 October 06)

  Time for Hard Decisions By Abhisit Vejjajiva Former Leader of the Opposition (6 October 06)
Following the public sense of relief at the end of the political impasse (albeit brought by a coup) and the optimism which greeted the appointment of an honest, well-respected Prime Minister, one cannot but begin to notice a number of ironies that emerge from the unfolding political events today. We have a former army chief, widely credited for making the army more professional so it can stay out of politics, at the top of the political system. We have an appointed regime expected to uphold democratic principles and restore democracy. We have a one year interim government facing the challenge of setting a new direction for the country. And while we do not know the exact composition of the cabinet, the legislative chamber, the National Assembly or the Constitution-drafting assembly, we can see the key challenges facing them and issues which must be resolved urgently. The first of these is political. Whatever the real sentiment within the country, we cannot ignore the negative reactions and concerns expressed around the world. Like it or not, we are part of the international community and the global economy. While some criticisms may be due to lack of understanding, there are some valid points. In any case, for our own interest, the need to return things to normal is the top priority. While we can wait one year for the Constitution and elections, the same cannot be said for the lifting of various restrictions on freedom and rights. This must be done as soon as possible. The new regime will not gain its credibility on its stated intention of restoring democracy unless this is achieved. It is also impossible to have a meaningful public participation in the reform process without freedom of expression. Last but not least, however able or honest the new cabinet line-up may turn out to be, nothing beats full public scrutiny to guarantee good governance. Of course there will continue to be concern about possible subversive activities, especially given the existing wealth and network of the old regime. Yet a blanket restriction is not the way to deal with that and may indeed backfire as time goes by. Rather, what is needed is swift and strict enforcement of the law. The Police, DSI and AMLO should do their job properly. There is no shortage of cases, ranging from violence, corruption to lese majeste, which had been conveniently neglected simply because offenders happened to be those in power or their supporters at the time. Proving that there is rule of law is also crucial to resolving violence in the South. Peace can only be achieved through justice being seen to be administered. Now is a golden opportunity to signal a change in policy to win over the hearts and minds of our fellow countrymen in the three provinces. The second set of challenges concerns the economy. In the short term, there is need to sustain the growth of the economy. Promptly passing the 2007 fiscal year budget with a moderate deficit, proceeding with necessary infrastructural investment and measures to reduce the cost of living to increase purchasing power and consumer confidence are the first few steps that should be taken. The more difficult challenge is to make concrete the changing priority spelled out by the new Prime Minister that the ultimate objective is Gross National Well-Being and not GDP, and that the Sufficiency Economy philosophy will be fully adopted. By itself, this is a worthy but difficult goal to achieve. Coming after five years of rampant populism makes it twice as hard. Unless most people appreciate the need for this change, the task would be almost impossible. The issue is too important and the country cannot afford failure, otherwise a return to authoritarian populism will stage a strong comeback, this time causing permanent damage. It is best therefore to start off with public education. The most powerful way of doing so is through fiscal transparency. It is time the public realizes the real fiscal position after much confusion about how much money the government has and what its burdens are (contingent liabilities included). True cost-benefit analyses of various schemes should be spelled out so that priorities can be set. Those schemes that respond to basic needs and rights (free education and health care) should be given top priority. The rest should be reassessed. New initiatives should aim at “helping people to help themselves” so that people do not need to rely on the state but will have the capacity to earn a reasonable and sustainable living. Doing so will enable all to see how to reconcile the Sufficiency Economy and the Market Economy. The latter should not be rejected, but made to serve the ultimate goal of well-being. Striking the right balance is the key and two issues require urgent resolution. First, the new government must be clear how to proceed with the pending FTAs. Given that the deal with Japan has already received approval from the Japanese side, this only requires our government’s approval. The government should make the substance of the deal known to see if there are any controversial points. If not, it should proceed. If so, it should map out how to deal with them clearly before approval. As for the Thai-US negotiations, the new government can prove that it can be more democratic then the previous elected administration by engaging stakeholders to set a firm stance on crucial issues such as intellectual property rights and agriculture as the negotiations resume. It might even set a precedent that the deal should go to Parliament before approval. Second, a decision is needed on how to deal with the retail sector. There is currently no satisfactory arrangement to ensure that consumer interests and those of small shopkeepers can be balanced. This must be put in place, perhaps through new retail legislation. Finally, there is the task of restoring national harmony. This should not be equated with making compromises. Rather, it should be achieved through honest and open governance and strict and non-discriminatory enforcement of the law. Maybe an interim government with an undemocratic origin can demonstrate that it is nevertheless capable of upholding the substance of democracy. These actions must be taken promptly. They will help restore confidence and set a clear path for Thailand’s future. For those of us with democracy at heart, we hope to see the return to full democracy as quickly as possible and that this coup will prove to be the last for Thailand.

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