ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
This year in Thailand-what next?
By David Swartzentruber
It is commonplace in journalism to write two types of articles at the transition point between the year that has passed and the New Year.
As this writer qualifies as an “old hand” in observing Thailand with a track record dating back 14 years, it is time take a shot at what may unfold in Thailand in 2011.
The first issue that can’t be answered is the health of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, who is now 83 years old. He is the world's longest reigning monarch, but elaborate birthday celebrations in December failed to mask concern over his health.
Moving on, it is widely anticipated that the Thai Parliament will be dissolved and new elections called. The Democrat party, the major party in the ruling coalition, survived two law suits against it in 2010, both dismissed by the courts on procedural questions, not on the substance of the charges. Most Thai media pundits expect this to happen in April. The law requires an election by December.
One of the conditions that was laid out by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for a new election is that politicians should be able to campaign in every part of the country without fear for their lives. Recent trips by cabinet members to the red shirt opposition strongholds of North and Northeast Thailand were uneventful so it appears the PM’s requirement has been met.
Also, the Democrats have learned a lesson from the grassroots politics of fugitive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and have embarked on social programs benefitting workers. These include raising the minimum wage, addressing pricing distortions in food markets, utility and transportation costs. Financial assistance is promised for informal workers such as taxi and motorcycle drivers, street vendors and workers. Ten million households are expected to benefit from the Pracha Wiwat (People's Agenda) programme, which will be driven by lending from the state-owned Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives and the Government Savings Bank. The questions arises from local media is this handout program sustainable or just a tool to win votes a la Mr. Thaksin?
What about police and educational reform? The police often seem to run their department in the manner of a private business and ask a Thai student a question about anything outside Thailand and one is likely to get no answer or an incorrect one. The Bangkok well-to-do get around this by sending their children to private and expensive international schools in Bangkok or outside of the country for their college educations.
Bureaucratic reform is also needed as a new frontier looms when the Asean Economic Community starts in 2015. This will bring Thailand a lot closer to the world than many of its residents and politicians have ever dreamed and least expect.
This year could be a remarkable year of transition for Thailand if a nonviolent and peaceful election occurs. A hunch is it will be peaceful but real progress in social and institutional reforms and curbing corruption will be much slower as Thailand tries to move toward a more cohesive and democratic society.
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