4 years after the anti-election PDRC protests: how’s ‘reform before elections’ doing?

 
Four years ago, on February 2, 2014, People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesters, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, forcefully shut down many polling stations in Bangkok and the South. Many citizens who came to vote were prevented from entering the booths and some were assaulted by PDRC mobs. A day earlier, red shirts and the PDRC even fought over the delivery of ballots in front of Laksi District Office. A 72-year-old man was shot in the crossfire: he was disabled and later died of his wounds.
 
The blockade prevented the election from being held on the same day nationwide. The Constitutional Court later used this as a reason for declaring the election invalid, creating a political vacuum that smoothed the way for the army to take control on May 22. The PDRC claimed that they obstructed the election because they wanted “reform before elections”. After the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took control, PDRC leaders expressed the hope that the junta would carry out this reform. In its fourth year of power, the NCPO has declared that elections will be held in November this year, or maybe in February 2019, or whenever — with no sign of the “reform before elections” that the PDRC called for so loudly.
 
 

1. Poverty and social disparity reform: charity instead of a welfare state

 
The PDRC saw the poor as the root of Thailand’s political problems. Because they are poor, a large number of people, especially in rural areas, depend on patronage systems and populist policies, such as the rice-pledging scheme, the first car initiative, and 30 baht universal healthcare without caring about the long-term damage to the country.
 
When the NCPO came to power, they adopted only some of the PDRC’s ideas. Somkid Jatusripitak, Deputy Prime Minister, announced at the Thailand 2018 Seminar that this year the junta would tackle the country’s poverty by integrating government sectors. One project was the poverty welfare cards, colloquially called Poor Cards, for which 11.4 million people have registered.
 
Although various earlier projects and policies of the junta had aimed at tackling poverty, the Poor Cards turned out to be the most concrete. It categorizes people by economic class and increases their visibility so that the state can help them better. 
 
However, a closer look shows that this aid for the poor is at most charitable assistance, rather than a measure to tackle poverty at its source. The long-established disparity between the 99 percent and the one percent in Thailand determines that the act of injecting money only into the lowest class cannot be classified as solving the problem of economic disparity. The various benefits for Poor Cardholders are actually benefiting capitalists with close connection to the junta because the poor can use the card to shop only at Thong Fa (Blue Flag) welfare shops, the project initiated by the NCPO.
 
Existing welfare systems, like the universal healthcare system and pension system, were cut back to focus on the poor. Although no clear measures have been enacted, the 2017 Constitution provides a loophole for the state to escape its obligation to provide universal welfare.
 
To illustrate, the Section 47 states: ‘A person shall enjoy the right to receive health services from the state. The indigent shall have the right to receive health services from the state without payment in accordance with the law ...’
 
In contrast, the 2007 Constitution states (Article 51): ‘A person shall enjoy an equal right to receive proper and standard public health service and the indigent shall have the right to receive free medical treatment from public health centres of the State...’
 
Supporters of the current healthcare system criticised that removal of the word “equal” might allow future governments to jeopardise universal access to free medical treatment. 
 

2. Corruption reform: harsher sentences and interference in the NACC

 
Another point of reform touted by the PDRC was “reform of the problem of corruption, having the government accountable to its citizens.” This includes heavier legal punishments, removing the statute of limitations, and allowing citizens to file complaints without going through prosecutors or the DSI. 
 
But the problem of corruption has not lessened at all in the NCPO era. Transparency International in 2016 ranked Thailand 101st out of 176 on the Corruption Perceptions Index with a score of 35 points, 3 lower from the previous year, due to rights violations during the Constitution drafting period which was devoid of freedom of investigation and debate.
 
In fact, investigating corruption has never been harder. Gen Prawit Wongsuwan’s scandal of his undeclared assets of 25 luxury watches has provoked mass criticism of the Defence Minister and the junta, putting the administration on its “last legs”.
 
Another point of contention for citizens is that Watcharapol Prasarnratchakij, Chair of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), is a close friend of Prawit. Therefore, people doubt the NACC’s ability and willingness to investigate corruption among the junta. Criticism rose even louder when the NLA passed the organic bill on the NACC, which intentionally created a loophole for Watcharaphol to continue serving in his position, even though he is constitutionally not qualified for his position because he recently held a political post.  Members of other independent or organizations, such as the National Human Rights Commission, have been dismissed en masse, even if they still meet the qualifications for their positions.
 
This is not the first time that the “self-investigation” phenomenon happened under the NCPO’s rule. Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, who managed the Rajabhakti Park project, admitted that kickbacks were paid in the park’s construction, but all the “commission” had already been returned as a “donation”. The army set up their own investigation and declared that there “was no corruption” in the project.
 
Nevertheless, the NCPO did implement some of the PDRC’s anti-corruption ideas, especially with regard to harsher sentences. In August 2017 the Conflict of Interests bill entered the NLA. The objective of this act was to prevent government workers and officials from taking bribes. What constituted “corruption” in the law, however, was very petty, including acts such as borrowing vehicles or getting more discounts at shops than other customers. Some academics said the law was made to bully officials rather than prevent corruption.
 
Under the junta, some corruption cases have moved fast while others stalled. For example, the case of the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration’s rice price guarantee scheme is still stalled while the case against the later Yingluck administration’s rice-pledging scheme has already been completed. 
 
How corruption-free is the NCPO, who claimed to have taken power to get rid of corruption? Scandals include Rajabhakti Park, the blimp, and the Hawaii trip as well as various others, which some are still uninvestigated. Those who have tried to investigate have been prosecuted by the law.  For example, pro-democracy activists from New Democracy Movement were arrested for their attempt to call for an investigation over Rajabhakti Park scandal. 
 
The Corruption and Malfeasance Cases Act of 2016 and other anti-corruption policies lean towards heavier punishment rather than creating systems of checks and balances that involve citizens.
 

3. Decentralization reform: using Article 44 against local officials

 
The PDRC’s most progressive suggestion seemed to be their proposal on decentralization. They suggested that provincial governors must be elected, rather than appointed by the Ministry of the Interior as now. Governance should also involve citizens more. Yet the NCPO did the opposite of these suggestions.
 
As with national elections, the NCPO indefinitely deferred elections of Local Administration Organizations. Office holders currently in position would continue until new orders were issued. Not only that, but the junta also used Section 44 of the Interim Constitution to relieve officials in many provinces of their duties, especially those tainted with corruption, and replace them with officials from the Ministry of the Interior. Section 44 also closed down many small-scale local government organizations, combining them into larger organizations.
 
There has been no discussion during the past four years of electing provincial governors. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the Governor of Bangkok, was also kicked out of office by the NCPO after being criticized by the junta for his failure to deal with flooding. (Bangkok is the only province with an elected governor.) The NCPO then appointed Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, a former member of the NCPO’s National Reform Steering Assembly, to replace him.
 
Although Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, soldier-turned-politician, has said that there will be limited local elections before the next national election, it is unclear which provinces are in the running. But NCPO orders that violate political freedoms and restrict political activities are still in effect. Local election laws remain unchanged. The combination forebodes a cloudy future.
 

4. Delayed police reform

 
The NCPO called for the police to be under the administration of a citizen-elected Police Administration Monitoring Committee, and for promotions in rank to be based on a merit system. The NCPO created a team from officials from the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice and the Royal Thai Police to form a Commission on Police Reform in 2015 that lasted until 2017. The cabinet also appointed Gen Boonsang Niempradit as its head. According to the Commission’s latest announcement, they reached 80 to 90 percent of their conclusions on personnel management, promotions and position appointments, assignments, and investigations. Still, these reforms did not devolve authority to elected representatives – a condition that the PDRC had demanded. For example, NCPO Head’s Order 6/2559 requires that police are legally appointed by the Royal Police Act, NCPO announcements, NCPO orders, or Gen. Prayut’s orders.
 
Suthep had called for the Royal Thai Police to be divided into national and provincial divisions. Elected representatives in provincial divisions would determine police appointments and transfers, hypothetically solving the problem of cross-province transfers. These demands, and also one that police officers should have Bachelor’s Degrees, have been stalled until today, with no concrete action taken whatsoever by the reform committee. 
 

5. Electoral and political party reform: an appointed Senate and National Strategy Committee

 
Three days before the PDRC was formed, Suthep proposed election reforms that would guarantee fair elections where “evil people would not come into the Senate and do evil things without listening to citizens.” When the NCPO came into power, this was the “reform” that the junta gave the most weight to. This can be seen in the election system regulated under the new Constitution.
 
But the actual reforms were far different from those that the PDRC envisioned. An election system where no single political party would gain an advantage will create a weak coalition government that cannot push for citizen-friendly policies and paves the way for an unelected Prime Minister. This reform was aided by one of the NCPO’s innovations: the 250 appointed Senators, all appointed by the NCPO. Senators may have the authority to nominate and vote for the prime minister.
 
Another innovation is the National Strategy Committee, which sets a 20-year strategy which all later elected administrations must conform to. The Committee will get periodical reports from government agencies, and ignoring the strategy may result in punishment.
 
In terms of political party reform, the Political Parties Act has been criticized for many petty laws such as those regarding party registration, membership, funding, and other laws to make parties more policy-based rather than a person-centred. Critics say these laws prevent the formation of smaller, newer parties.
 
Towards the end of 2017, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha announced to Thailand and the world that elections would be held in November 2018. Yet shortly after, that promise was again broken due to complaints that the organic law of the election of MPs, drafted by the NCPO-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee, was unfair to new and small political parties, so implementation of the law had to be postponed. Among the complainants were Paibul Nititawan and Suthep Thaugsuban, who clearly stated that they would support Gen Prayut in the next election.
 
Before that, the two big political parties, Democrat and Pheu Thai, had asked the NCPO to “unlock” political parties so that they could prepare for the year-end election – requests that the junta ignored. But when small parties with “good people” like Paibul and Suthep speak up, the NCPO responds as quick as lightning.
 
In December 2017, the junta invoked its absolute power under Section 44 of the Interim Charter to issue an order to allow some political activities while the general ban on political activity remains. This measure, of course, also pushed the deadline for elections from November 2018 elections out another 90 days into the future. 
 
The order states that members of a political party who intend to continue their membership have to “draft a letter” to confirm their intention to the party leader. They must also attach evidence that they are eligible members, according to the Organic Act on Political Parties. This must be done by 1 May.
 
This means that the established political parties have to get their current members nationwide to send the letters and evidence within the given period. Otherwise, their membership will be invalidated. 
 
Several politicians have subsequently condemned the order as the junta’s attempt to create an excessive burden for old-established parties, given reports and rumours that the NCPO plans to support small parties in the next election.
 
“The fact that this order forces members of political parties themselves to draft a letter to confirm membership is difficult. There is writing the document and sending supporting evidence. Are people capable of doing this? Is it a violation of their rights?” asked Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, a member of the Pheu Thai Party legal team, “In fact, it should be the duty of the party to check if their members have the qualifications or not. This is not the responsibility of party members.”
 

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