Sunday, April 17, 2016

Changes needed for Prayut to implement his vision

Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation

Image from, with caption: Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha checks out a T-shirt with his face and "Return Happiness to the People" message on it at the vocational fair in Padung Krugn Kasem Canal.

After watching Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s weekly update on Thailand during Songkran, my level of adrenalin shot up. As usual he spoke candidly without any pretention. Knowingly or not, he split the beans about his thoughts on the country’s current situation, the Cabinet and hordes of other issues.

Obviously, he has good intentions and sincerity, but somehow his words and policies have not been fully implemented — even though he is armed to the teeth with the National Council for Peace and Order's Article 44, which gives him absolute power to curb acts deemed harmful to national peace and stability.

After he seized the leadership in May 2014, Prayut knew he must convince the Thai people of his good intentions in restoring order and peace to a society polarised by party politics perpetrated by vested interest groups.

In other countries, party politics does not inevitably lead to bloodshed - but over here it is like adding fuel to fire. Prayut thinks he has found a panacea. In truth, he is failing, unless he changes a few things quickly.

His most important contribution is the militaristic "Information Operation (IO)" guidelines, which have been used excessively and caused more harm than anything else so far.

Due to the nature of military government, Prayut has to be held responsible for everything and every plan within the current political setting — as the boss giving orders. All subordinates have merely to carry out the orders quickly. Some have been easy to execute, such as summoning journalists, activists or politicians for 'attitude adjustment' or banning meetings or punishing corrupted officials. But whenever the orders involved broader public policies or stakeholders, military officials have often gotten lost in the woods, unable to appreciate the priorities or the right things to do. Today, Prayut still needs to talk about every single issue on TV, indicating a lack of understanding of public engagement and diplomacy by his close aides. The current IO team comprises military officials who do not understand public mindsets and restless civilians and 'netizens'.

There has not been any attempt to draw a long-term broad strategy on public diplomacy. Everything under the current arrangement is for a specific mission and on an ad hoc basis; as such, no essential planning is done beforehand — only reactions to the crises at hand that occur day after day.

The difficulty in promoting the new charter draft is just such a case in point.

Prayut needs a civilian team to assist him with information dissemination about government policies and plans. It is foolish to have the prime minister doing all the talking about the government's work — both success and shortcomings - although he did so well last week. Better communication strategies at the top will improve awareness and tainted images at home and abroad. Otherwise, it is akin to a broken vinyl, making the same mistakes again and again. Another reason is the enforcement and implementation of new laws. Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Krea-ngam disclosed last week that up until now 150 laws had been passed and only half were effectively enforced. The rest are bound up with bureaucratic red tape. He said that another 50 laws were in the pipeline awaiting royal endorsement.

It is doubtful whether all legislation can be fully implemented by the last half of next year, when a general election will be held. In addition, since April last year, Prayut has used Article 44 a total of 59 times, enacting new laws to cope with immediate problems such as human trafficking, an over-priced lottery, malfeasant officials, among others. Again, some orders were implemented in full, but others only partially done.

The programme last week was rather unusual as he mentioned repeatedly the importance of Thailand being accepted by the international community, including its adherence to the so-called universal values and standards. He also referred to his foreign trips and meetings with global leaders and what they had told him about essential things to do for Thailand. Asean was mentioned several times in the update.

But outside the tube, there were still lots of inconsistencies. For instance, while Prayut has been very sympathetic and helpful towards the plight of millions of migrant workers, he is oblivious to rights violations committed by his officials on local people - by applying the information guidelines and by other means.

The latest report of Thailand's human rights condition prepared by the US State Department highlighted these hypocrises and abuses succinctly. Finally, judging from his assessment of the country's international standing and recognition - Prayut urgently needs a new foreign policy team that is in sync with his diplomatic vision — a Thailand that can say "No" without sitting on the fence, independent, forward looking and not aligned with any power. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not taking bold initiatives under the purview of Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak. Indeed, as an immediate remedy, Prayut should take up the foreign affairs portfolio himself as soon as possible. More than other previous Thai leader, Prayut is a true believer of the power of the Asean Community and its centrality. He sees Thailand as the hub of all things Asean in the near future. That was why he said he was not interested in an arms race in the region — just making sure the 630-million community was strong and living in peace.

After two years in power, Prayut has more confidence and wants respect from his international peers. But he must earn it against all odds; he has to prove his mettle further.

In early June, he is scheduled to give a keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Thailand's security vision for Asia — something no previous premier has done. Before that, he will make visits to India and Russia next month.

It will not take long to find out if he makes the grade, because these days both internal and external developments are closely interlinked.

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