Many things can spark a tantrum from General Prayut Chan o-cha. One of them is talk about ripping apart the junta’s 20-year national strategy. Most recently, at a forum organized by the National Economic and Social Development Board, the prime minister blasted critics of his national strategy. “Several parties said if or when they become the government, they would scrap the national strategy”, the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying. “They will bring the country to its knees.”
Not an untypical statement from the premier, perhaps, considering he often deems anything his critics says as tantamount to a wholesale attempt to destroy Thailand. But it’s worth spending some time to unpick what the national strategy is, why it is so controversial and why it is most likely doomed to fail.
As part of many mechanisms that has been incorporated into the 2017 constitution, which was approved by the electorate in a referendum in 2016, the creation of a 20-year national strategy was mandated. Compliance is to be enforced by clauses in the constitution that requires future elected governments to create policies and propose budgets that align with the national strategy; failure to do so will be grounds for impeachment. The National Legislative Assembly endorsed the current government’s draft for a 20-year national strategy earlier this year.
On paper, the 20-year national strategy sounds like something that could be admired. It is based around three core values: munkong (security), mungkung (prosperity) and yungyuen (sustainability). The government’s stated goal is to elevate Thailand from middle-income to high-income status by the year 2036. This vision is not controversial; in fact, it is something that every Thai government should aspire to. Thailand’s governments (indeed, many governments around the world) are notoriously myopic and could use some long-term goal-setting to keep them on track.
The question, therefore, is not about the content of the 20-year national strategy. The issues are as follows.
Firstly, even if the plan is permitted to be revised every five years, there is no way a plan can be set two decades into the future. The world is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Think about the world 20 years ago – that would be in 1998. Is there any way that anyone could have predicted how the world would look like in 2018? It would take an extremely visionary leader to accomplish the feat, and it seems doubtful that any one of Thailand’s generals possess that level of analytical perception.
Secondly, the national strategy suffers from a clear democratic deficit. It was drafted by the current military junta that came to power through a coup and voted on by the unelected parliament. The government may claim that the plan was drafted through consultation with the private sector and the public at large, but the bottom line remains that Thai electorate as a whole never gave the 20-year national strategy an endorsement. ‘Thai-style democracy’ is not sufficient for a binding plan that is due to expire in 2037.
And it is this binding nature that will act as a way to constrain future elected governments from pursuing their own policies. It is true that the national strategy is at times vague and specific, and so it does allow for some creativity on the part of future governments. However, the straitjacket that the junta is choosing to stuff the next prime minister into will also act as a mechanism to ensure that he or she will toe the NCPO line. There can be no course change, because any such course change will only result in removal from office. In effect, the 20-year national strategy provides an excuse to remove an elected government at any time.
Everyone knows that Prayut seeks to continue his tenure as prime minister; the 20-year national strategy is merely a mechanism to be utilized in case the junta’s plans dont play out and a different party wins the next general election. This means that the government should not be focusing on constraining the next government. Instead, the prime minister should declare openly and honestly that he seeks to continue running the country, and sell that vision to the public. If his rationale for remaining in power is so compelling, and his vision so attractive, then democracy will run its course and Prayut will return to Government House. If not, the public has chosen to reject five years of NCPO rule.
Those are the choices that should be offered – not the current option of electing a government, any government that will be required to follow Prayut’s directives for the next 20 years.
The prime minister says that scrapping the national strategy will bring the country to its knees. That will not happen. Keeping it, on the other hand, will create a sham democracy and bring representative government to its knees.