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Why Thailand Will Stay in the Third World

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BANGKOK – Cambodia had a “fake” national ballot in June. Bangladesh held a “farcical poll” blighted by intimidation late last month. Thailand is worse. It can’t event hold a general election as planned.

All three are developing countries whose rogue leaders are not shy of showing the world that they will do whatever it takes, even to the point of disrespecting the rule of law, to hold on to power. What they have done (and are doing) represents a classic Third World problem.

Even if Thailand holds its poll on Feb 24 as the National Council for Peace and Order hinted earlier last month, it will not make the contest a free and fair one. This is because Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is expected to become the prime ministerial candidate of the pro-regime Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), at the helm of which are four of his own cabinet members.

During the past months, the PPRP has already achieved an impressive milestone in electioneering, thanks to the government’s many recent populist policies and cash handouts under the uncannily similarly named Pracha Rat scheme. At the same time, other parties had to ensure a political ban until last month while some politicians also face criminal lawsuits brought against them for criticizing the regime.

Notwithstanding such repressive and unfair practices, people still wanted the election to take place as scheduled, or at least by March 10. Delaying it merely prolongs the country’s military rule, something that many people have had enough of.

An election here may not be as overtly corrupt as that which manifested in Cambodia, where the ruling party launched brutal and illegitimate legislative attacks and lawsuits to keep the opposition party out of the contest. Nor would it be worse than the one in Bangladesh, where the ruling party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is accused of tampering with the results.

Last month, the Thai electorate were assured that the roadmap was being followed to a poll that would pave the way to fixing our broken democracy, bringing back foreign investors and having a lower house that acts as little more than than a rubber stamp.

Some say that when you are happy, time flies without you noticing it. The regime appears to have been too busy enjoying being in power to notice that it has now been ruling the country for nearly half a decade — longer than the tenure of an elected government.

Given that Gen Prayut has broken his election promises several times, many no longer trust his words. So when his government suggested that the poll should be postponed for about a month to avoid calendar clashes between post-poll activities and arrangements and celebrations for the coronation ceremony of His Majesty the King, it’s hardly surprising that many assumed it was just another excuse to keep the regime in power.

If the country is to truly update itself to the 4.0 version the government seems so keen on, avoiding calendar clashes between long-expected events is the least we can expect. It does not require the postponement of the election, probably just a couple of government meetings.

If the government is incapable of planning ahead with any certainty, how can it be considered capable of administering the country?

Indeed, it is telling that the regime has not achieved anything substantial with regard to its reform and reconciliation agendas.

But the real issue lies beyond both its reluctance to let the country return to normalcy and its desire to be in power during the ceremony. The regime, through army chief Apirat Kongsompong, has lambasted pro-democracy activists who have taken to the streets to demand an election be held sooner rather than later and called them “troublemakers”.

After suggesting the poll delay to the Election Commission, the government has still not made clear when it will issue a decree to call for the election, a process that would allow the poll agency to officially set a date.

People are being willfully kept in the dark over the country’s political future. Who is the real troublemaker here?

With Gen Prayut currently touring the North this week, discrediting other political parties for their “empty policy promises”, one could not be blamed for suspecting that he and the PPRP itself may need more time to electioneer.

It has been said that Thailand will find it hard to become a developed nation. Rather, it will get stuck in the middle-income trap due to a number of factors such as income inequality, low education quality and an oligarchic political structure.

For me, another element that will keep Thailand trapped as a developing country is its tendency to make a non-issue an issue and a non-problem a problem.

Just take a look at the recent spat over the Bangkok Christian College’s “casual Tuesday” policy that allows its secondary students to dress down for a day each week.

Those who are against the policy cited all the usual rote reasons as to how uniforms have something to do with learning and teaching development.

Our teachers spend countless hours trying to ensure that students follow dress codes and other meaningless school rules and rituals when they should be using the time to improve standards in the classroom.

While the ruling regime continues to cite calendar clashes as a problem that requires a delay to our election, it only serves to remind us that the nation continues to wallow in its Third World status largely because our leaders are so bent on making mountains out of molehills to suit their political ends.

By Surasak Glahan
Deputy Op-ed Editor
The Bangkok Post

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Note: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Chiang Rai Times.