I am not going to use this column to make any New Year wishes. New Year wishes are wishful thinking, especially if one were to wish that a new government, headed either by the People Power party or by the Democrats, would carry out the reforms so badly needed in our country to strengthen democracy, human rights and social justice; seriously combat all forms of corruption, while at the same time reducing the powers of the bureaucracy, the military and the mafia-type power brokers that patronise rural society.
It would be equally futile to wish the new government to be able to resolve the chronic, violent conflict in our southern border provinces.
Instead, I want to propose a New Year agenda for civil society which hopefully will help to generate greater unity and strength for civil society as a whole, and at the same time set the stage for a permanent and more prominent role for civil society in pushing for reforms leading to a more democratic, more peaceful, less corrupt and more equitable society where eventually everyone is guaranteed basic rights and freedoms as well as a reasonable quality of life. Wishful thinking? I hope not.
By the term "civil society" I am referring to reform-minded individuals and social organisations in Thai society such as the NGO movement, community organisations and networks, workers' unions, religious groups, etc.
In the coming year, the role of civil society will be critical in keeping government from selling out the rights and interests of the common people, in helping to resolve social/political conflicts, and in institutionalising major reforms.
For civil society to be strong, it is important that civil society organisations maintain strict political independence and avoid being sucked into the mainstream political conflict of "pro-Thaksin" versus "anti-Thaksin" politics.
Our present Constitution provides civil society with a number of tools to carry out its tasks. One of these is the right to submit people's bills to parliament with 10,000 signatures of support. Parliament is required to consider these bills, and to allow representatives of the proponents to have one-third of the seats on parliamentary committees considering such bills.
Civil society can also make use of the Administrative Court to challenge controversial government policies and programmes, as was successfully done by consumer networks in their challenge to the Thaksin government's attempts to privatise the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
Civil society can also demand public hearings on important foreign agreements that the Thai government wishes to sign.
These are just some of the ways that civil society can exert influence on those in power. My proposed civil society agenda for 2008 is as follows:
1. Reform of broadcasting media to allow a diversity of independent radio and television stations catering to all sections of society, including public broadcasting systems and genuine community radio and television stations.
We need to make the new Public Broadcasting Law really succeed in establishing an effective independent broadcasting regime to facilitate public education, debate and participation in the affairs of our country.
2. Urgent repeal and amendments to all laws that violate the basic democratic rights and freedoms of the people. We need to use people's bills to repeal martial law, the recently passed Internal Security Law and the dictatorial decrees of various military junta that still have the status of law. The Computer Crimes Act needs to be amended to allow freedom of expression on the internet without fear of persecution.
3. Making sure that the government does not try to sell out the interests of the public by privatising vital public utilities, transportation and services, or by signing international or bilateral foreign agreements that adversely affect our sovereignty, the well-being of the population, or cause us to protect intellectual property rights beyond our necessary commitments to the World Trade Organisation.
4. Establishing a movement to promote welfare state policies, with immediate focus on access to education and pensions for all. The recent semi-privatisation of state universities needs to be reversed so that they can fully serve the public interest.
5. Establishing a civil society forum to tackle the conflict in the southern border provinces through public education and dialogue among concerned parties.
6. Discussions on how to establish sustainable grassroots-based political parties that do not depend on individual financial or political backers, and serve the interests of the economically deprived sections of Thai society.
These, in my view, are some the more important issues that should keep civil society busy during the coming year.
Civil society includes anyone acting in an individual capacity or as part of a civil society network or movement to participate in the affairs of the country.
I hope that you will be willing to join in and support those civil society activities that you agree with.
Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development. Comments are welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org
First Published in Bangkok Post