EDITORIAL: Another wasteful populist scheme

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - The costly ‘Thai Niyom’ plan to pull the country out of the mire ignores fundamental issues and their causes,

Hundreds of state and administrative officials from across the country were in Bangkok this week to hear Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha outline the government’s “Thai Niyom” scheme for moving the country forward. How he came to believe he has the moral authority to impose such ideas is a mystery. But when the going gets tough, even someone with absolute power in his hands will turn to such devices in the hope they will improve their situation.

Prayut knows people are not gullible, so Thai Niyom, which translates as “Thai-ism”, comes with a price tag of Bt100 billion, of which Bt2 billion will be paid to the officials charged with implementing it. The government is hoping the expensive undertaking will encourage citizens on both sides of the political divide to abandon their animosity and work together to get Thailand back on track economically, help bring about “Thailand 4.0”, and end the scourge of social inequality.

It is, in essence, an attempt to buy loyalty, a populist notion of the kind favoured by the very regime the generals ousted with the 2014 coup. It will do nothing to improve livelihoods or productivity. Money will briefly appear in people’s pockets and be spent, and then we’re back where we started.

The plan has 10 thrusts. It seeks to make society more harmonious, assist low-income people, improve livelihoods, promote a sufficiency economy, build good citizenship, enhance understanding about the government’s work, foster “Thai-style” democracy, give workers more technological know-how, ease drug abuse, and support state agencies. Nearly 8,000 teams of community workers will visit 
people in 83,000 communities to find out what’s needed and seek their support for the project.

The scheme seems lifted from the communist Chinese playbook. Rather than winning hearts and minds and improving livelihoods, its aim appears to be justifying the junta’s continuance in power. We don’t suggest the generals want to stay in power forever, but their constitution does seal the military’s continued role in national politics. 

Why send teams around the country when there are already civic offices everywhere that could assess needs and encourage support? This is a recurring problem in Thailand, often addressed and never resolved. Before the coup and the ban on large public gatherings, ordinary folks would take their complaints directly to Cabinet ministers or even the premier, rather than pursuing more readily available channels. Under the Interior Ministry alone there are village heads, kamnan, district chiefs and provincial governors. The other ministries have similar chains of command to which grievances can and should be directed. The public’s tendency to ignore these officials suggests that their mandate is too limited to address the issues raised – or that their competency is in question. If either is the case, the shortcomings should be fixed. 

Public regard for the military and the police is no better. In the South it is widely believed that the military’s “forward command” – by which ranking officers request government funding for community-outreach programmes – are primarily scams to enrich the men in uniform. The police meanwhile bicker over expensive equipment and projects with little heed for what people think of them. The junta has nothing to say about it. It is, sadly, no better than the corrupt and self-serving regime it drove from power nearly four years ago. 

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