The Bangkok Post

31 Jan 2018

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha first uttered the phrase regarding “Thai-ness” less than three weeks ago. In that short period of time, his program called Thai Niyom has not just come into being. Now the Thai-ness project is already fully organized, completely staffed and apparently working, down to the village level. It even has acquired an adjective and now is “sustainable Thai-ness” or Thai Niyom Yangyuen. For these reasons, critics already are attacking it as yet another facet of the military’s plan for an indefinite stay in power.

According to the official explanations, this Thai-ness project is designed as a 20-year program. Despite this, it is, at least for now, strictly a regime-directed, military friendly program. Prime Minister Prayut himself is chairman. He has five deputy chairmen — the five deputy prime ministers. The 61-member guidance committee is also exceptionally regime-heavy. The important members are Gen Prayut’s cabinet and head of the National Security Council.

This emphasizes the main and most important criticism of the Thai-ness program which the government said is to help locals, down to the grassroots level, in all aspects. Critics have raised a solid question about whether public input had been adequately sought. Government spokesman Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd told the media that local scholars are to be invited to join the regional structures. But it remains unclear how much they could make contribution under such a top-down format.

This becomes especially troubling as one follows the organizational chart downward. At provincial and district levels, all input is to come from governors and district chiefs. At each of more than 7,000 tambons, or villages, the program will be run by appointees named by the district chiefs. Here, at least, Gen Prayut’s project sheet allows for the presence of local people and volunteers, but only if they pass the muster of the military appointees above.

Thai Niyom Yangyuen has been foisted off so quickly that suspicions are inevitable. Gen Prayut’s off-handed attitude to holding national elections has caused concern that this new project has unrevealed motives. In superficial ways, it bears some resemblance to the Village Scouts programs under the former dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn — an organization disgracefully involved in the 1976 Thammasat massacre.

And the slogans of this new organization are already piling up. Supposedly Thai Niyom originates from Pracharat, or the people and the state collaboration programme, which also has brought Tam Kwam Dee Duay Hua Jai, or “Do good deeds from the heart”. It is a sad fact that the more slogans a government program needs, the more they seek to control rather than facilitate.

According to the explanations provided in the first two weeks, Thai Niyom is to be aimed in its early days specifically and almost uniquely at the Northeast and North. This is a strong indication the project is more political than social. From the very beginning, the coup-makers of May 2014 have applied special attention and tactics — sometimes including force — to try to convince red-shirt and Pheu Thai supporters to switch their support to the military.

And clearly, the prime minister and his coup regime have fashioned Thai Niyom to fit into another problematic development. That is the stationing of troops of the army’s Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) down to the village level or even blow. The very nature of Isoc and its secretive methods raise legitimate concern. And it must be remembered the prime minister has deputized every member of the military with police powers.

Gen Prayut should begin immediately to allay concerns and fears over Thai Niyom Yangyuen by engaging civil society and civilian groups and individuals to the program. The government owes a clear and swift explanation or risks giving the wrong impression.

(First published in Bangkok Post –