Strong-arm tactics hold country back

When you hold a public hearing, the goal is to listen to wide-ranging opinions on the issue at hand, isn't it? In hearings on controversial matters, government officials are supposed to play the neutral role to bring about open discussions to reach a well-informed decision, aren't they?

What happened at the public hearing on a new coal-fired power plant in Songkhla's Thepa district on Monday underscored once again a very sad fact: state authorities have not only failed to do their duties, they are at the forefront in the war on natural resources against the people. Instead of making the hearing open to all sides, the venue was cordoned off by barbed wire. Armed soldiers, policemen and defence volunteers were deployed to keep the power plant opponents at bay. The message was clear: We will get coal power no matter what, and if you dare to oppose it, we have the military might to control you.

See also: Songkhla residents hold their own hearing

Local officials may argue they have no choice because the decisions on controversial projects - coal-fired power plants, deep-sea ports, big dams, fracking and environmentally destructive mining - have already been decided at the top. Their duty now is to eliminate any obstacles.

Such arguments, however, will fail to debunk the truth that state authorities have now become public enemy No 1.

The current military government is in the hot seat for supporting the controversial megaprojects. But the truth is all of the projects were the brainchilds of different ministries and state enterprises— all decisions made from the top down, and all harmful to local communities and the environment. I also suspect the projects will also fatten many policy-makers' bank accounts. Past civilian governments — given their vested interests and similar beliefs in industrialisation at all costs — also supported these projects. But coming from elections, they had to respond to protesting voices. That's why the bureaucrats and technocrats jumped with joy when the military seized power. They believe it is their golden chance to use military might to bulldoze their pet projects through. And they are right.

Since the coup, forest authorities have started violent crackdowns on the poor who live in the forests, particularly strong-headed forest communities who have demanded constitutional rights to co-manage the forests. Mining authorities have also convinced the military to quickly grant a large number of mining concessions. They are also pushing for a new mining law that will allow for mining in any areas they see fit, including ecologically sensitive rain-catchment forests.

Energy mandarins are also pushing for fracking in local communities, coal power and deep-sea ports in scenic coastal towns that would destroy the local tourism industry and marine ecology.

Irrigation officials have also taken advantage of the current drought to push for megadams in pristine forests, calling on the military government to use dictatorial power from Section 44 to suppress local resistance. Meanwhile, the cyber technocrats are fast-tracking a set of legislations to empower themselves and allow authorities to infringe on citizens' privacy and private businesses.

Since the 1997 People's Charter, citizens and local communities have many legal mechanisms they can use to protect their natural resources and livelihoods, such as mandatory public hearings and environment and health impact assessment studies. For the autocratic officialdom, these democratic rights are stumbling blocks that need to go.

After the coup, if people demand public hearings or environmental and health impact assessments, armed soldiers and policemen will simply be deployed to silence their grievances. All this scoffs on the "good people" mantra from the regime. While politicians are painted as greedy and corrupt players who need to be frozen in a new political game, bureaucrats and technocrats are portrayed as "good people" who will save the country.

Yes, democracy is more than elections; it demands the democratic rights of ordinary people and civil society to stop movements by the state that would infringe on private and communal lives. Without electoral democracy, however, these democratic rights have no chance.

From protests over natural resources to the southern insurgency, education failure and police corruption, the crux of the problem is centralisation. What the country desperately needs is to be able to move forward with its political and administrative decentralisation. Despite decentralisation calls during the pre-coup protests and the junta's promise for reform, the regime is moving the country back into centralised bureaucracy's grip.

The draft charter is also moving in that direction.

Many believe the military regime will stay on for some time. If that is the case, the centralised officialdom will grow even stronger. Local grievances over the use of natural resources will be more intense and widespread. Peace will remain as elusive as ever.

Source URL: Bangkok Post