How free are we?
Thailand last held a general election eight years ago, while it’s been over four years since the coup. A lot has changed. As Mar 24 approaches, we take a look at the election from the new-gen perspective, speaking to experts from different fields to unravel which parties are best positioned to tackle the country’s problems.
Wiriyah Ruechaipanit is an activist and author at Eduzones, a collective that aims to improve the quality and accessibility of Thai education.
What is the main problem with the Thai education system?
The teaching and testing processes as well as the end-goal are not clear, which leads to very limited results that don’t tell us much about the children’s abilities. We have very few critical thinkers.
What does Thailand need to do to resolve this?
We need quality teachers and officers to oversee education policy and create clearer goals. Our ways of teaching and testing are outdated. Education shouldn’t be just for school, but for everyone and with today’s technology, it can be made easy.
What do you hope to see from the government regarding education?
I want to see officers who take responsibility. Unemployment, dek wan [teenage biker gangs], drugs and teen pregnancy are all the result of education. The government should be looking at the statistics and aiming to decrease these problems through education.
How do you think the education system will progress post-election?
It’s hard to have hope in the election and education system, since when the political semester is over, the process has to start over again. We need to start helping ourselves. The parents and community should lead the way and seek government support.
Best party on education: Future Forward party
Chitsanupong “Best” Nithiwana Lakkana “Khaek” Punwichai
Chitsanupong “Best” Nithiwana is a young LGBT activist and member of iSpot’s award-winning LGBT innovation team. Lakkana “Khaek” Punwichai (AKA Kham Phaka) is a writer, columnist and news commentator.
Does Thailand have gender equality problems?
Best: From an LGBT angle, there is some inequality, but it’s not the worst in the world. Though we don’t experience physical abuse, LGBT mockery is viewed as lighthearted rather than harmful and we still don’t have any laws to protect LGBT people.
Kham Phaka: In Thailand, we don’t have laws that restrict women—we actually have more female students in universities—which makes us seem very progressive. Culturally, however, we still have problems—for example, the university professor who said that trans people shouldn’t be teachers because they’re bad role models. I don’t think queer culture exists in Thailand as we have very firm gender preconceptions, which trans people are also subject to.
Should Thailand legalize same-sex marriage?
Best: I want to see marriage equality, however, some people think it will solve everything, but we are yet to achieve basic rights.
Kham Phaka: I don’t really believe in marriage, if you’re LGBT, why would you want to follow a 19th century tradition? Marriage is only good for official things like getting a mortgage together or signing hospital papers. A partner should have the right to do that without being husband or wife.
What do you hope to see from the government regarding gender equality?
Best: Sometimes LGBT issues are used as a marketing campaign but in reality we never get any real rights—it’s like when you see tribal people being used to market tourism. We want the government to actually see that LGBT rights will benefit our economy.
Kham Phaka: I’m not expecting immediate results but I want to see the right process, where everyone has a voice—through debate, we could come to a better understanding.
Best party for gender equality:
Best: Pheu Thai and Future Forward seem to have a clear stand on their policies.
Khaek: I would vote for any democratic party that is against the coup.
Tara Buakamsri is the country director for Thailand at Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
Can you tell us more about Thailand’s environmental issues?
We’re among five countries that account for 60-percent of plastic pollution in the oceans. Climate change is one of our biggest issues—we are already seeing prolonged droughts, decreased agricultural and fishery yields, violent flooding, sea level rise and health-related issues. The future holds water management challenges, heightening of conflict over resources, a flood of new immigrants and refugees, and damage to the tourism industry. Bangkok, in particular, has been ranked no.3 [after Manila and Dhaka] on the list of world cities most vulnerable to rising seas.
What would it take for Thailand to be more aware of this crisis?
There should be a space for genuine public participation in environmental policy. We need to highlight the importance of the human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, sustainable and healthy environment.
What do you hope to see from the government regarding this issue?
Though the government has come up with a 20-year environmental policy to address environmental challenges and mitigate climate change, action on this policy has been limited.
What can the government do to address the environmental situation?
Firstly, Thailand must enforce the environmental laws it already has in place. Next, we must go beyond vested interests—often, the companies carrying out Environmental Impact Assessments are the same ones that stand to benefit from that particular project. Also, our policies on marine and coastal resources management are not in sync, which results in ineffective and unsustainable development that fails to address issues like coastal erosion. In addition, the government needs to take decisive action on sustainable alternatives to the agriculture chemicals that are wreaking havoc on plant and animal populations.
Best party on the environment: It lies on parties like the Commoner Party or Green Party, though they are very small.
Arts and Culture
Pawit Mahasarinand is the director of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.
How has the work of Thai artists changed since we’ve been under the coup?
Let us salute, with whichever fingers, our junta for creating a great source of content for artists to work with. Contemporary art promotes freedom of speech and encourages people to both listen to and respect different opinions—it prospers in a truly democratic country. Unfortunately, that’s not Thailand. Here, a lot of people use the word “harmony” but in fact they mean “unification.” That said, there have been works produced during this period that make me grin. For example, B-Floor Theatre’s “Bang Lamerd,” which is part of a recently published anthology of performance scripts titled Micro Politics. I remember when I was watching this performance, there were military personnel taking videos—had there been art appreciation classes in our schools, perhaps they would have understood the meaning of the performer’s physical movement. Likewise, no one asked for the paintings in Vasan Sitthiket’s retrospective exhibition I Am You at BACC to be removed. But maybe that’s why our annual grant from the city has been removed.
How do you think the art, culture and music scene is going to progress post-election?
I’m not sure “progress” is the right word here. It looks like the new government won’t be that different from the current one. On that note, I recall last year when the PM paid a visit to BACC—in reality, it was more like a one-minute walk to get through to the BTS station; as he was about to pass through the door, he looked up and said, “What building is this?” I’m not a pessimist but I don’t see any art and culture policies on any political parties’ billboards.
What can the government do to improve this scene?
First, I think the government really needs to understand that culture is a way of living, thinking, creating and expressing. For a lot of people here, culture is limited to traditions. Second, the culture ministry needs to increase its impact by cooperating more with other government agencies and projects, and not only in terms of creative economy. At the recent forum at BACC, many political parties said that artists need to prove that their works have economic value as well as aesthetic value. It is quite alarming that many cultural policy makers have been looking to South Korea as the marketing king of arts and culture. What Japan has done with its culture over the decades is more sustainable—how both the traditional and modern parts of it happily coexist. Finally, in terms of support from the private sector, the culture ministry should rethink their tax refund benefits. At the moment, you must donate directly to the culture ministry’s fund, then artists must write proposals and pray they get the support. What centralization! By contrast, donors can support schools directly for the same tax benefit.
What do you hope to see from the government regarding this issue?
I hope to see them conduct research on the current problems facing arts and culture in Thailand and find ways to solve them. I hope they do not repeat the same mistake of spending B17 million of our tax money on the opening ceremony of the next Thailand Art Biennale, but instead really support as many art and culture projects as they can.
Best party on culture: If the election was tomorrow, I’d vote for Future Forward Party.
Sirikan “June” Charoensiri is a Thai human rights defender and lawyer.
Has the military government affected freedom of speech?
After the military coup, The National Council for Peace and Order [NCPO] implemented a new institutional and legal framework which severely limits the exercise of human rights within Thailand. Article 44 grants the head of the NCPO unfettered power to issue any executive, legislative and judicial orders with impunity; since May 2014, this article has been invoked to issue over 200 orders including prohibition of gatherings of five or more persons for political purposes; power to detain persons for up to seven days without charges; and granting military personnel powers of law enforcement, among others. Under the military government, I have observed the collapse of the rule of law, militarization of justice, and constitutionalization of dictatorial powers.
How would you like Thailand to improve on human rights?
Firstly, they need to separate the military from civilian governance. Next, all legislation issued by the NCPO should be reviewed by an independent organization and remedies should be offered to those who have been negatively affected by the military’s use of power. The criminal justice process is in need of reform. All verdicts that guaranteed the success of the coup, granted the NCPO and government officials exemption from legal liability or violated human rights should be annulled. Any new civilian government will have to act decisively to address these issues by ensuring that military personnel are weeded out of legislative, judicial and civilian administrative offices. All stakeholders will have to work toward the restoration of the rule of law, democracy and the protection of human rights.
Best party on Human rights: The Future Forward Party, Pheu Thai Party, the Commoner Party, Seri Ruam Thai Party, Thai Raksa Chart Party.
Manit Intharapim is an activist for disabled rights in Thailand who runs Accessibility Is Freedom (www.accessibilityisfreedom.org) network.
What do you hope to see from the government regarding social welfare and healthcare?
Though there are some satisfactory policies in place, there are still some problems in the details. Special benefits for disabled people are still not covered at all hospitals nationwide. The government offers a loan to disabled people to help start their career, but the only way to pay it back is at 7-Eleven—accessibility is not so easy when you’re in a wheelchair. If we are to move to Thailand 4.0, why not offer more convenient options like Internet banking?
What can the government do to improve social welfare and healthcare?
Every disabled person has different needs. Some need professional helpers, some can’t leave the bed, or some, like me, are in a wheelchair but are otherwise healthy. Government support should take two forms, one is financial, the other is helping individuals to become more independent. On top of physical and mental problems, disabled people face so many obstacles just leaving the house. Footpaths, skywalks, road crossings, buses, taxis, boats and buildings are mostly inaccessible and there’s a lack of help and support. I want to see a more solid timeline from the government for addressing this and creating more consistent standards everywhere to help us become stronger and more independent members of society.
Best party on social welfare: Regardless of who gets into parliament, we will happily work with them to push this country to be for “everyone.”
A brief history of 21st century Thai politics
Thaksin Shinawatra (Thai Rak Thai) was elected as prime minister, January.
Coup number 12—Sonthi Boonratklin, army commander and police commission general overthrew Thaksin’s government in September and made Sarayud Chulanont prime minister in October.
People’s Power Party, AKA Thaksin’s rebound party, came to power in the first election since the military coup. Samak Sundaravej, then the party’s leader, became prime minister of Thailand.
Samak Sundaravej was terminated for having worked as the emcee of two cooking shows while in office, in violation of a law that forbids government ministers from holding any other paid employment. In September, Somchai Wongsawat (People’s Power) was elected as prime minister by the National Assembly.
Abhisit Vejjajiva (Democrat) was appointed as prime minister after the Constitutional Court stripped Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsuwan of the title in December.
Yingluck Shinawatra (Pheu Thai, succeeding People’s Power) was elected as Thailand’s first female prime minister, July. 2014 Coup number 13—Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha came to power, May.
Coup number 13—Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha came to power, May.
Thailand’s 26th general election, March.
HOW DOES THE NEW BALLOT WORK?
In elections past, voters got two ballots—one for a constituency representative and the other for a party-list candidate—which they could cast to two different parties. This year, voters will only be given one ballot, so they will only be able to vote for a single party; the votes will then be weighted to establish constituency and party-list representatives. There will be 500 individuals in total in the house of representatives—350 constituency representatives and 150 party-list candidates—combined with 250 senators that Prayuth gets to pick himself. All 750 will then vote in the parliament for a prime minister. Whoever gets 376 votes will get the role. Prayuth is likely to have a huge head start, since his 250-strong selection will most probably vote for him.