Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Let's move forward to a more caring society

Jul 13, 2011
Source: Bangkok Post

Well, the voters have finally spoken, and their clear verdict needs to be universally accepted for democracy in Thailand to be able to progress peacefully. The Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck Shinawatra have the legitimate right to manage the country, while the public, the media and the opposition have the legitimate right to monitor, scrutinise, and criticise the performance of the new government.

Let's hope that any moves by Pheu Thai opponents to sabotage the democratic process through technicalities are soundly rebuffed by the relevant authorities. Let's also hope that the new government fosters a new spirit of democracy by consulting with the public, listening to its critics, and by ensuring the freedom, diversity and independence of the media.

Now is the right time for measures of reconciliation (as I discussed in my last article) and to begin to move forward towards a more caring, sensible and peace-loving society.

I'll give some examples of what needs to be done in this respect: Regarding the 300 baht minimum wage, this was a key policy of Pheu Thai, for which they were elected, and must therefore be implemented without delay. It should make some contribution towards reducing Thailand's 15-fold income gap between the top and bottom 20% of income earners that places Thailand in the category of one of the most economically unjust societies in the world.

And while we're dealing with economic inequalities, how about starting an effective land-redistribution programme to help sustain small-farmer communities and reduce the 70-fold equivalent wealth gap. Welfare state programmes such as universal pensions, universal access to education, and much-needed reform of the social insurance structure also need to be implemented. To achieve all this actually requires substantial tax reforms such as introduction of more effective progressive income tax and wealth tax, both of which were not on the Pheu Thai agenda.

However, Pheu Thai has promised to eliminate poverty, and this is the way to set about it.

Pheu Thai promised a new war on drugs and so a new war on drugs there must be! But let's make it a war on drugs that respects fundamental human rights and avoids the extrajudicial killings of the previous infamous campaign. The new campaign needs to respect the rights of drug users as victims, not perpetrators of the drug trade. Drug users should not be arrested, thrown in jail, or forced into ineffective mass-rehabilitation programmes run like military camps. Instead, they should be encouraged to participate in harm-reduction programmes that offer them a number of alternatives to improve their health and quality of life, such as long-term drug substitution, clean injection equipment, group therapy, and professional rehabilitation. Tough suppression measures should be focused on the financiers of the drug trade and high ranking police officials directly involved in, or paid to protect the drug trade.

Then let's start to mend our relations with Cambodia and resolve the Preah Vihear Temple dispute in a mature way. Surely long-term peace with Cambodia is worth much, much more than a 4.6 square-kilometre disputed piece of land?

The present bitter conflict with Cambodia over registration of Preah Vihear as a world heritage site has been fueled by internal ultra-nationalistic forces who have distorted the facts through unrelenting propaganda campaigns designed to give them the upper hand in Thailand's internal politics. The conflict has led to numerous armed clashes, possibly hundreds of deaths and large-scale evacuations of communities on both sides of the border.

The true facts are that the International Court of Justice ruled almost 50 years ago that the territory on which the Preah Vihear Temple is situated belongs to Cambodia. The Thai government at that time complied with the verdict and did not make any use of its opportunity to appeal, which has long since expired.

The recent declaration of intention to withdraw from the World Heritage Convention by the outgoing government has no benefit regarding Thailand's claim to disputed territory, as Article 11.3 of the Convention states quite categorically that: "The inclusion of a property situated in a territory, sovereignty or jurisdiction over which is claimed by more than one State shall in no way prejudice the rights of the parties to the dispute".

With a new government in office and some flexibility on both sides, there should be a good opportunity to resolve the dispute in a sensible way that benefits both countries. For example, maybe we can agree to disagree over the actual border demarcation and convert the 4.6 sq km disputed piece of land into a Thai-Cambodian "peace park", jointly administered by both countries. Then Thailand should drop all objections to the World Heritage status of Preah Vihear temple and to its management by Cambodia. As a result both countries could enter an era of lasting peace in their relations.

The outdated concept of not giving up "even an inch" of territory is absurd in the modern world and particularly in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations where we are gradually moving towards more economic integration and dissolving of borders similar to the European Union.

Two other areas where we need to become a more caring and sensible society are related to our treatment of migrant workers and political refugees and I will go into detail on these issues in future articles. We cannot continue to treat the citizens of our neighbours who come here to work for both the benefit of their families and the benefit of our economy as second or third-class human beings. We must not continue to invoke "national security" as an excuse to violate international principles of conduct to those seeking temporary refuge from atrocities and war in our land.

Jon Ungphakorn is a human rights and social activist, winner of the 2005 Magsaysay Award and a former elected senator for Bangkok.

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