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Have Funds, Will Travel

The study tour by Election Commission officials to observe the recent Scottish referendum on independence has been widely criticized.  Some have noted that the Election Commission has not shown itself to be overly keen on organizing elections in this country, so why the interest in other countries? 

Others have pointed out that under the current constitution there is no referendum mechanism (and no voting at all, in fact, except among those, like the National Legislative Assembly, who have been pre-selected and can be relied on to vote correctly).  And of course independence, such as the Scottish electorate has just declined, is specifically, categorically and unconditionally banned by Section 1 of the constitution: ‘Thailand is one and indivisible kingdom.’

Claims of misuse of taxpayers’ money were fuelled by the holiday-type snaps of the EC tour group posted in the internet by some cynical sod (and aren’t we all grateful for cynical sods).  Unless of course polling and campaigning took place in castles and museums. 

And yet others have pointed out that Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn’s assertion to have learned an important lesson — “Each side fought with reasons” — was immediately belied by his personal and abusive attacks on critics of his trip.

So what is the point of an official observation of an activity in a foreign country that can never be carried out here?

I cannot claim to fathom the reasoning of officials on a freebie.  But such boondoggles are not as infrequent as you might think or hope.

There was, for example, the Town and Country Planning Department’s trip to Canada to observe best practice in snow clearance.  The seriousness of the exercise looked rather questionable when it was discovered that the trip to Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls was scheduled for July. 

But the officials who took part argued that certain aspects of the technology of snow clearance could be applied to floods.  This explains the unusually large numbers of bulldozers and backhoes seen stranded in deep water whenever the flood waters reach waist height.

A training course for traffic police in Japan also failed to achieve its objectives.  Trainees were asked to observe simulated traffic law infractions and deal promptly with the miscreants. 

The role-playing motorcyclist deliberately not wearing a crash helmet rode past the Thai officers, circled the block and went past again.  And again, with no action taken.  The trainers thought it necessary to alert them to what they had missed.

Suddenly realizing their error, the Thai policemen immediately tried to make amends – by setting off in pursuit on motorcycles while wearing their ordinary police caps.  The mass arrest that followed sadly brought a premature end to the training.

A study tour to Germany by a party of judges was instigated by someone in the judiciary getting hold of a copy of Streckfuss’ ‘Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté’.  And even more surprisingly, reading it. 

From the explanation of lèse majesté in other countries, it was learned that apart from modern Thailand, the most recent explosion of lèse majesté cases was seen in imperial Germany more than a century ago.  The judges wanted to know how the German political system managed to maintain a consistently high number of prosecutions, and, more importantly, why this had come to an end.  The lessons learned would be very valuable if applied to Thailand, they argued.

The judges were somewhat taken aback to find that Germany itself no longer has a majesté to lèse.  The emasculated lèse majesté law that lingers on the books only applies to foreign heads of state and has fallen into disuse. 

It was only after strenuous efforts by the Thai Embassy in Berlin that the judicial party was dissuaded from suing the Bundesverfassungsgericht, or constitutional court, for gross negligence in allowing matters to deteriorate to this sorry state.  It was impressed on the judges that questions of royal privilege were already a sensitive issue between the two countries.

One apparently ludicrous foreign spree has since turned out to be quite prescient.  Some years ago, a Patriotism Promotion class from the National Defence College visited major song-writing and film-making establishments around the world (including Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood).

At the time, criticism of the armed forces was still recognized as part of the right to freedom of expression and many ridiculed the idea of men in uniform learning skills from the entertainment industry that have traditionally been exclusively the work of the private sector.

‘Who expects a general to write pop songs or the screenplays for soap operas?’ said one wag at the time.

Now we know.

About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).