Toeing state line no way to ensure reform
When topdown control is holding the country back on all fronts, reform is only possible when
state abuse can be contained by civil society, grassroots groups and the media.
Despite the current constitution and reform brouhaha, one thing is clear. No constitution can
rescue the country when it perpetuates central control via an unaccountable bureaucracy and
military rule. Nor can any reform assembly pave the way toward meaningful change when it
does not question persistent state efforts to clip the wings of civil society, communities and the
If anyone still believes reform is possible under the military government’s tight grip, its latest
attack on the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) should bring them down to earth.
Like the Thai PBS public broadcasting service, ThaiHealth is funded by earmarked sin taxes
from tobacco and alcohol. Both bodies have been under attack from the current government for
misuse of public funds with veiled threats of the possibility of dissolving them.
The question is why, and why now?
The government is entirely correct that both organisations should be subject to financial
scrutiny. What has unfolded, however, suggests the moves may be part of the government’s
overarching strategy to make all civic and media groups fall into line.
In the ThaiHealth case, there is also suspicion that the grilling stems from the Isra News
Agency’s reports on PM Prayut Chanocha’s father’s land sale and his brother’s assets. Isra’s
funding also comes from ThaiHealth.
Since the coup, the military government has been quite successful in suppressing anticoup
activities. Meanwhile, the Prayut government’s many policies have faced strong opposition from
civic and grassroots groups.
Its dreams of building dams, special economic zones, deepsea ports, coalfired power plants, and
a riverside promenade along the Chao Phraya all met fierce opposition from local communities
and civic groups. The same with forced evictions of the forest poor and plans to expand mining,
gas drilling in villages and extend petroleum concessions.
Locals’ plight, while ignored by most mainstream media, is regularly featured by Thai PBS.
Some civic groups which are critical of state policies also receive project funding from
ThaiHealth. Now you see why the government feels it necessary to make both organisations toe
the state line.
The main accusation against ThaiHealth is misuse of funds. How, for example, can it justify
funding the Isra web news agency or other community projects beyond physical health
Some went so far to say that since ThaiHealth is funded by sin taxes, increasing drinking and
smoking problems point to its failure and legitimise its demise.
Financial misuse or not, we need to look at the organisation’s founding ideology and mission. In
its mission statement, health is broadly defined as including not only body and mind, but also
society and the environment. Its mission is to initiate, motivate, support and coordinate to foster
general wellbeing in society and to empower citizen groups to do so.
It is why it backs green farming and environmental friendly jobs. It also supports
decentralisation, an open society, and a healthy environment.
Many state agencies which are supporting mainstream development and corporate profits are
unhappy with that. Its biggest critic is probably the Public Health Ministry. ThaiHealth is not
only its competitor. Its support for decentralisation of the healthcare system and budgeting is a
direct challenge to public health authorities’ central power.
The government is well aware of ThaiHealth’s soft power. Last month, Deputy Prime Minister
Somkid Jatusripitak enlisted its support to announce a government partnership with local
communities under the Pracharath (people’s state) policy to strengthen local economies.
Despite its reformist agenda, ThaiHealth believes change can be triggered from within the
system, one step at a time. It is under heavy criticism from prodemocracy groups. Yet, it is
viewed as radical by officialdom and the government.
The close ties between ThaiHealth’s mentor Prawase Wasi and DPM Somkid may save it from
the axe. But the warning is clear. So are the moves to squeeze civic and grassroots groups by
stopping their funding.
ThaiHealth and Thai PBS are not flawless. But they are part of the steps toward an open society.
We should be worried when their wings are set to be clipped.