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Doubts linger about reform process

Most red shirts still oppose congress headed by Prawase and Anand despite claim of 'transcending political divide'
The three-day National Reform Congress concluded yesterday with its chairman Prawase Wasi boasting that the meeting, which drew some 2,000 participants, "transcended" political division and "united" people from all walks.

However, the truth remains that millions of red shirts oppose the process due to the fact the whole scheme received support and was initiated by the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration after the bloody military crackdown on red shirts, which led to 91 deaths in the middle of last year.

Besides being seen as opportunistic, the process is also dominated by many people who are aligned or play a key role in the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement.

At the congress on Saturday, PAD co-leader Piphob Thongchai was seen chatting in a relaxed manner with friends and a female journalist. The few red shirts who showed up are mostly very critical of the process they came to observe. Independent media sympathetic to red shirts like online newspapers didn't even think the congress was newsworthy.

Instead, ran an opinion piece by a commentator berating Prawase for failing to acknowledge the fact 91 people were killed just before the congress was initiated by the government or that the funding is seen as part of an attempt to appease red shirts, who are mostly poor people.

While many poor grassroots people participated in the congress, which came up with eight reform proposals ranging from land reform, better social security, decentralisation, greater gender equality and better treatment of handicapped people, the whole reform process, instead of transcending the political divide, as Prawase claimed, has antagonised some red shirts further.

Many who this writer spoke to think Prawase and his followers are "shamelessly exploiting" a political opportunity to secure funding and push for reform in accordance with their moralistic view of what constitutes a good society. Others say they utterly failed to address the need for reform of those at the very apex of Thai society - namely the monarchy institution.

While many at the congress speak of the need for politicians and bureaucrats to think and work differently and not treat people with distrust or subjugate and exploit them, perhaps the same could be said about the reform process led by people like Prawase and former premier Anand Panyarachun, who were both appointed by PM Abhisit.

It seems they were not patient enough to build a process that is genuinely inclusive, and instead chose to exploit the situation by seizing the moment to push for reform and secure funding and the blessing of the government while red shirts and others are in pain and grieve after the loss of life in May 2010. One is readily reminded of the social activists and NGOs who tacitly supported the military coup d'etat in September 2006 which ousted Thaksin Shinawatra. Many of them regarded the post-coup Thailand as "a golden opportunity" to introduce a moralistic agenda to reshape Thai politics and society.

Ironically, one speaker at a panel on the first day of the congress said something about how many Thais don't respect other people's rights. The speaker, a medical doctor, said he went to a film-developing shop to have photos processed and while waiting a regular customer showed up and jumped the queue without any qualm. In matters of national reform, it is counterproductive if not foolish for the very people who claim to want to push for reform to antagonise a significant proportion of the population. But people like Prawase and Anand, and their supporters, have done just that.

Now that the Abhisit administration is about to call for a general election, the reform congress resolved yesterday to continue its work for at least two more years and push their agenda to all political parties and any future governments, as they have secured funding and a mandate from the current administration.

There is no denying that most if not all the suffering aired during the congress was genuine but the reform process started badly and cannot be truly regarded as inclusive.

Prawase claimed the process was a "new paradigm" as he spoke at the end of the congress yesterday. While such a conclusion is debatable, one thing certainly new is that these people have succeeded in alienating and antagonising many red shirts in the name of a national reform that "transcends the political divide".

Perhaps it's time for a rethink on how to push for reform as well.

Key issues for reform

Eight major issues for reform were endorsed by the first National Reform Congress yesterday with the congress vowing to push for reform regardless of which party formed the government in future. The highlights are as follows.

 1 Land reform and introduction of progressive land tax for those owning more than 50 rai of land.

2 Enabling villagers to participate in the decision-making process over the handling of coastal water and resources.

3 Establishing a special court to handle the problem of poor farmers arrested for encroaching unused public or private land.

4 Expand coverage of the social security system and make it more transparent and participatory.

5 Set up various funds for the elderly.

6 Secure funding from national lottery income and use it to set up a fund to help people, like the physically handicapped.

7 Decentralisation of power and budget and enabling local people to have more say in selecting their leaders and the budget.

8 Use art and culture to heal society by establishing an art and culture commission with the involvement of artists. And also, set up the people's art and culture fund.



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