Opinion: To make sure no Thai is left behind, build a true Team Thailand

Here is a tale of two press conferences.

One is held by the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom. He announces that California will be forming a task force to help guide the state’s economic recovery. Newsom invites the task force’s co-chair on stage, and it is Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager (and failed presidential candidate.) 

Later, the state government releases a list of the task force’s members, and it includes Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and Bob Iger, Disney’s executive chairman. It is well received. 

Just one day previously, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha addressed the nation. We must all be a part of “Team Thailand”, he declared. He then announced that he will send a letter to Thailand’s 20 richest people. “As senior members of society, how can you assist us? How will you contribute to helping Thailand?” 

The speech was roundly panned. The hashtag “beggar government” started trending on Twitter. But what had gone wrong? The state could use all the help it can get. If a partnership between public and private could drive the economic recovery efforts along, why mock it? California’s advisory council, co-chaired by a billionaire and seating some of the world’s wealthiest, had not received anywhere near the same treatment. 

Firstly, credit should be given where credit is due. The coronavirus epidemic in Thailand is, for now, largely under control. 

Thailand undeniably under-tests, but even so, healthcare systems have not yet been overwhelmed. Despite the initial dithering, the government’s decision to close nonessential businesses and stop international arrivals has slowed the spread and saved countless lives. 

Where the government has had trouble is in its efforts to assist those in need. Khon Thai mai ting gun, the government named its relief program: “No Thai left behind.” It became an awkward name for what turned out to be a shambolic process. Many were rejected from receiving the 5,000 baht the government was handing out despite meeting the eligibility requirements because of defects in the application they had to use. 

Despite the well-documented difficulties of this process, even as headlines mount of desperate, cashless people asking to be arrested or contemplating suicide, the government has continued to insist on testing for true hardship. 

I do not doubt that the prime minister cares about ordinary people suffering in this crisis. It would take Trumpian levels of indifference to lack such basic humanity. 

But one can be forgiven for understanding why a government unable to alleviate the plight of the poor will be criticized for seeking to listen to the rich. Empathy matters, and this government has simply failed to connect with the people it governs. 

The prime minister has simply failed to persuade people that he is building a true “Team Thailand.” 

Even if all Prayut wants to do is ask for advice from successful business moguls, suspicions have only been fanned with the government’s actions. Suspicions that many have long held is that the state, and this government, in particular, is captured by a narrow group of private interests. The perception is that this is a government that caters to the few, not the many. 

Under Prayut’s watch, all statistics have pointed to Thailand becoming an increasingly unequal country as the rewards of economic growth is felt by an ever-narrower slice of the population. Poverty has risen as conglomerates thrive within an oligopolistic economy — the leaders of which will now be providing advice to the prime minister. 

At the same time, the military continues to dominate critical functions of the state. It emerged last week that General Preecha Chan-o-cha, the prime minister’s brother, is sitting on a parliamentary committee on tourism. He joins a dozen other military officers already on the committee.

How, then, can the poorest and most vulnerable Thais feel confident that they will not be left behind when they have already been working in an economy that does not work for them? 

How can they be convinced that the governments takes livelihoods and economic recovery seriously when a committee on tourism, one of Thailand’s most critical industries, is dominated by the army? 

The government can take immediate steps to correct this perception, however. 

As a first step, Prayut can take a page out of California’s handbook and ensure that he is seeking input from a wider cross-section of society. Governor Newsom was not criticized because he did not just appoint billionaires and businessmen. He also named the leaders of ten labor unions and four former governors, two Democrat and two Republican.

There is no reason why Prayut cannot set up an economic recovery task force that is comprised of more than just Thailand’s richest. Former prime ministers, leaders of businesses large and small, and local leaders; these are just examples of people who can provide a larger perspective. 

If he must, he could even start where he is ideologically comfortable. He could, for example, seek the advice of Korn Chatikavanij, the former finance minister who successfully led Thailand through the 2008 financial crisis. This is no time to waste experience. 

At the same time, he should also reach across the political aisle and listen to opposition MPs. One way he can do so is by asking parliament to sit virtually. He may not agree with Pheu Thai or Move Forward most of the time, but MPs are in touch with the needs of their constituents. If the prime minister wants to know how ordinary Thais are feeling, he should make use of the fruits of representative democracy. 

And there are talented, economic-battle-hardened former ministers who sit on the opposition benches. Only with true cooperation from all sides can there be a real Team Thailand. Why not ask for input from the former commerce minister Mingkwan Saengsuwan, for instance?

In these trying times, the success of this government will be our success. And so we must push for the government to be successful in ensuring that truly no Thai will be left behind. 


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