Submitted on Tue, 26 Apr 2016 - 03:27 PM
The draft constitution is a written attempt by the junta to take Thai politics and society back to the pre-Thaksin era. The draft not only aims to prevent the emergence of a Thaksin-like government, but also the emergence of Thaksin-like policies, which were tangible and ‘edible’ for the poor.
The charter draft has been condemned as an attempt by conservative forces to neo-liberalize Thailand by, for instance, removing the minimum wage and universal healthcare, curtailing the protection of labour and reducing the education budget. Although most of the policies that face curtailment have been improving grassroots standards of living for more than a decade, conservative forces still perceive them as politician-initiated populist policies, wasting the country’s budget.
Previously, Prachatai has analysed the macro picture of Thai politics under the draft constitution (see more). In this article, Prachatai portrays a micro level. Civil society has condemned the draft as a threat to civil rights which can lead to the abolition of policies that enhance people’s standards of living such as free education, free healthcare and the minimum wage. Some of these policies were initiated by Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party
Labour rights: minimum wage removed and labour confederations left unprotected
The draft charter might put an end to the nationwide 300-baht minimum wage policy, one of the renowned Pheu The Party’s policies, and does not guarantee the constitutional protection of labour confederations.
Article 70 of the draft states that the state must provide labour safety, welfare and wages in accordance with living conditions. In contrast, the corresponding article of the 2007 charter stated that the state must provide fair pay and welfare without discrimination.
Boonyarat Kanchanadit, a labour activist from the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee, said in an article that the replacement of the expression “fair pay” with “in accordance with living conditions” might lead to the abolition of the policy of a nationwide minimum wage.
“It is very dangerous for labour for the draft to replace the expression ‘fair pay’ with ‘in accordance with living conditions’ because it can be interpreted that the minimum wage will be different depending on the locality, since the cost of living in each area is different” said Boonyarat.
In 2013, Pheu Thai government initiated the ‘300 baht minimum wage’ policy, where all employers across the country are obliged to pay their workers a minimum wage of 300 baht per day. The policy has been condemned as a populist policy buying the grassroots’ support.
Boonyarat added that labour confederations will be left unprotected under the draft charter since it omits the word ‘confederation’ from the Chapter on people’s freedom of assembly.
Article 42 of the draft constitution states: ‘A person has the freedom to gather as an association, cooperative, union, organization, community and other kind of group…’ while the corresponding article of the two previous constitutions states: ‘A person has the freedom to gather as an association, union, confederation, cooperative, agrarian group, private organization, community and other kind of group…’
Boonyarat said that the omission of the word ‘confederation’ will make labour confederations unprotected under the constitution. Labour confederations are necessary for the labour rights movement since they are networks of labour from different companies who share the same interest in improving the wellbeing of all labour and the country as a whole.
Thailand nowadays has various labour confederations for different areas and industries, such as confederations of workers in state enterprises and the electronics, metal and automobile industries, and regional labour confederations. These confederations are currently protected under the Labour Relations Act but their protection might be curtailed under the draft constitution, added Boonyarat.
Disability: universal design and right to education removed
The universal design principle is removed from the draft, as well as state assistance to the disabled through the education system.
The concept of universal design was embedded in the 2007 charter. It is the idea that all public and private facilities should be designed with a concern for the disabled. The previous charter stated in Article 54 that the disabled have the right to access welfare, proper public facilities and assistance from the state.
This article has led to improvements in the design of public facilities, mostly in Bangkok, to assist the disabled, such as elevators and ramps in subway and skytrain stations and low platform public buses.
However, the draft charter has removed the entire clause and merely states generally that a person shall not be discriminated against based on race, religion, gender or physical disability.
This is despite the fact that, on 11 February 2016, Disabilities Thailand, the network of physically challenged Thais, filed a petition to the Chair of Constitution Drafting Committee, demanding that the drafters reinstate the concept of universal design in the draft charter. However, their voice was ignored.
Apart from the concept of universal design, the petition also mentions state assistance to the disabled in the education system which is totally absent from the draft charter.
The 2007 constitution states in Article 49 that the indigent and disabled have equal rights to access standard education and the state has to provide them with assistance and support for the sake of equity. The words ‘disabled’ and ‘indigent’ were removed from the corresponding article of the draft charter, regardless of the petition from network of the physically challenged. The draft merely states that people in general have an equal right to education.
Healthcare: free healthcare limited to the poor
The charter draft omits the word ‘equal’ from the right of Thai citizens to access free healthcare, turning it into a privilege for the poor. Activists fear that under the new charter the quality of healthcare for the poor will be even worse than at present.
The draft’s Article 47 states: ‘A person shall enjoy the right to receive health services from the state. The indigent shall have the right to receive health services from the state without payment in accordance with the law ...’
In contrast, the 2007 Constitution states (Article 51): ‘A person shall enjoy an equal right to receive proper and standard public health service and the indigent shall have the right to receive free medical treatment from public health centres of the State...’
Thaksin Shinawatra introduced the universal health scheme in 2001. The scheme was called the ‘30 baht policy’ where people receive a ‘Gold Card’, allowing them to access medical treatment in their registered district with a co-payment cost of 30 baht per illness, no matter whether rich or poor. Then in 2008 PM Abhisit Vejjajiva changed it to a free health care service but most people still called it the ‘30 baht policy’.
However, as with the minimum wage policy, the 30 baht policy has been continuously condemned as a populist policy favoring poor people. The junta has pushed various attempts to cut the budget for the 30-baht policy. Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta head and Prime Minister, said that it was unfair that the rich did not have to pay for treatment like the poor.
Therefore, the omission of the word ‘equal’ is closely related to the junta’s plan to eliminate universal healthcare.
Jon Ungpakorn, the advisor of People’s Health Systems Movement, said that turning free healthcare into a privilege for the poor will lead to class stratification. The poor will only get the lowest grade of medical treatment since they are unable to afford a better one.
“The current government are soldiers and they don’t understand that economic development needs to go along with social development. Economic development cannot advance unless citizens can equally access a good standard of living,” said Jon.
Education: free education reduced, centralized control increased
Upper secondary school education will clearly no longer be free under the new charter. According to Article 54 of the draft, the state must provide free compulsory education for 12 years including 3 years of kindergarten and grades 1- 9, while the previous charter covered grades 1-12.
Parit Chiwarak, Secretary-General of Education for Liberation of Siam, told Prachatai that many students studying in upper secondary school already face financial problems and the draft constitution will only worsen the situation especially in vocational schools because the budget for equipment, which is important for this kind of school, will also be cut.
Schools under the draft constitution will also become more subject to centralized state regulation as the draft stipulates that the state shall ‘direct, promote, and support’ education.
Athapol Anunthavorasakul, lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University, pointed out that the draft will allow the state to centralise the school system and reduce the participation of families, communities, and alternative education institutions.
“It will render useless any attempts to decentralise the education system and promote inclusive participation in education, which we have been working on for the last 15 years, and pull us back to an era of ‘state education’ which is not education for the people,” Athapol wrote on his Facebook post.
Closing down the red shirts at their roots: academic
The charter draft is aimed not only to prevent Thaksin’s influence in Thai politics, but also to curtail the red-shirt movement as a whole.
According to ‘Re-examining the Political Landscape of Thailand’, research conducted by Associate Professor Apichat Satitniramai from Thammasat University and his colleagues, the socio-economic changes in Thailand over the past 20 years have led to the emergence of a new kind of citizen, which the research calls the “new middle class” or lower middle class, or the red shirts. This group’s characteristics and interests differ from the old middle class or the middle-upper middle classes which constitute the yellow shirts, the colour originally adopted by the pro-establishment and anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
This is the result of 1997 Constitution that led to the establishment of strong elected government for the first time ever in Thai politics and Thaksin, the first PM elected under that constitution, realized the emergence of the new middle class. He launched various policies to improve their standard of living, such as the 30-baht health care scheme and village development funds. However, the old middle class, who did not benefit much from such policies, perceived them as populist policies wasting their taxes.
Apichat told Prachatai that the junta has a strong incentive to eliminate so-called populist policies through the draft charter, based on two main reasons. Firstly, the junta’s mass support is the old middle class who originally hated these populist policies. Secondly, elected civilian governments will not be able to gain popularity because policies favouring the new middle class will no longer be possible.
“The old middle class and the political elite are afraid of populist policies since they have increased political awareness among the poor people. Those policies make democracy edible for everyone and it is unsurprising that poor people love such policies so much,” said Apichat.
However, Apichat added that it is not easy for the junta to totally eliminate those policies, especially the universal healthcare scheme and free education because such policies are directly related to the well-being of the majority.
“If the junta stubbornly eliminates the 30-baht healthcare policy, as well as free education, we might see tremendous political resistance since such policies help secure poor people’s economic stability”, Apichat said. “Meanwhile, the old middle class will support the end of such policies since they perceive them as a waste of their taxes. In the end, it will be a class confrontation,” Apichat added.