Monday Review: Thailand explained by a music video

After a relatively long absence, a pop music band has made a stunning comeback with a music video mocking the junta. The MV neatly sums up Thailand’s politics during the past week. 
 
For the sake of a peaceful life, artists in Thailand usually stay away from politics. The biggest exception was during the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) campaign of 2013 and 2014 when a number of singers and actors conspicuously stood against the civilian government and called for a coup.
 
Last week, however, a famous pop band, Tattoo Colour, showed the courage to mock the junta administration. 
 
The band launched a music video “Dictatorchick (Phadet Girl)” which immediately went viral. The song is superficially about a man complaining about his the-girl-is-always-right relationship. The MV begins with “44 Rules by Girl,” singing “Love has no reason or equality. [I] must bear all the consequences. No way to win, regardless of how reasonable [I am].”
 
The MV and the song itself seem to have nothing to do with the current political situation.  But last week the junta was forced into invoking Section 44 of the Interim Charter, not to impose some controversial new regulations, but to clean up the mess caused by its own earlier decree. 
 
 
44 Rules by Girl in the Dictatorchick MV

Goodbye migrant workers

 
The junta likes doing things in haste and consequently without thinking things through, like the Royal Decree on Managing Foreign Workers, which went into effect on 23 June. The decree was rubber-stamped into law by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) on 6 July.  
 
Set aside for a moment what the law says. The question that people are asking is: “Why did the junta have to issue a royal decree instead drafting a proper law as normal?”  Royal decrees are normally issued in response to emergencies like natural disasters or political crises. 
 
One explanation is image. The junta wanted to restore Thailand’s credibility on human rights by showing itself eager to eradicate human trafficking from the migrant labour market, given that the US was about to published its 2017 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report on 27 June. Thailand was desperate to stay on the Tier 2 watch list just like last year.
 
But the law immediately sent migrant workers and their employers into a panic because of the huge fines for unregistered workers and those who employ them. The law also obliges employers to report to the government every time they hire a new migrant worker, despite all the existing bureaucratic red tape if you want to hire a migrant worker in Thailand. 
 
The decree triggered a sudden exodus of tens of thousands of migrant workers back to their home countries. Many of them are hesitating about coming back to the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t labour situation in Thailand and some said they will look for work in their own country. 
 
 
Cambodian migrant workers return home. Most of them are laid off as employers fear the new regulation (Photo from 77Jowo)
 
A survey conducted by Super Poll last week revealed that over 60 per cent of businesses that rely on migrant workers are worried that the excessive fines might allow law enforcement officials to, er, take advantage of them. The survey also shows that the smaller the business, the greater the worry. 
 
Interestingly, the poll also shows that people in general are optimistic about the new law with 78.7 per cent of respondents saying the law has no effect on them. In-depth interviews also found that people in general believe the harsh new regulations will be good for the Thai labour market. That’s the same labour market that has an unemployment rate of about 1.3% and which can’t find workers for many kinds of jobs.
 
In an attempt to stop the outward flow of migrants and the collapse of many businesses for need of workers, the junta decided it needed to show some ‘leniency’ by backtracking on its own law.  It invoked its absolute power under Section 44 of the Interim Charter to delay four problematic sections (including the ones dealing with the fines) until 1 January 2018. The junta also urged employers and migrants to complete their documents and registration within the time. 
 
However, Anusorn Tamajai, Vice President for Research and Academic Services at Rangsit University, pointed out that this U-turn under Article 44 neither guarantees that the migrants will come back to Thailand nor that the problems in the migrant labour market will be solved as the junta wishes.
 
Though the goal of the new law is to prevent law enforcement officers from taking bribes from unregistered workers and their employers, the excessive fines will eventually force them into paying bribes to corrupt officials in preference to paying even larger fines to the court.       
 
Anusorn suggested that if the junta really wants to improve the migrant labour market, it should encourage workers to register properly by giving migrants access to the same fundamental welfare services as Thai workers. Persuasion like this is way more effective than the compulsion favoured by the junta. 

Rice pledging scheme: Choose the right one

 
In Tattoo Colour’s MV, the 25th rule of the Dictatorchick is “choose the right one” with the girl asking her boyfriend which sunglasses she should wear. But when he chooses, she puts on the other pair as if his opinion doesn’t matter. Still, he has to smile and act like she’s made the perfect choice. 
 
Last week, the junta also tried to prove that people’s choice is not the right one.
 
On 7 July 2017, the Criminal Court held the penultimate hearing of defence witnesses in the case of Yingluck Shinawatra.  She is accused of neglect as Prime Minister leading to huge losses in the rice pledging scheme. If found guilty, she will have to pay 35 billion baht in damages, equal to 20 per cent of the estimated total loss arising from the policy. 
 
A number of politicians were troubled by the trial even before the verdict because it implies that politicians whose policies end up with a deficit could also be prosecuted, even if the policy goal is to improve people’s wellbeing. Some argue that Yingluck should not have been prosecuted as she was not directly responsible for the loss, but merely the head of government at the time.
 
Napoldech Manilanga, spokesperson of the Athippatai Puangchon Chao Thai Party (Thai people’s sovereignty) said that an easy comparison is the procurement of weapons for the army. This policy is thought to be correct because the state must have modern military equipment in order to build the capacity to defend the country. But if there is corruption or negligence in the oversight leading to losses to the state, the PM is not the culprit. The culprits are those who are involved in the process that leads to the loss.
 
This comment is particularly pungent coming from a party that many think has been fabricated by the junta itself.
 
Yingluck’s rice pledging scheme was one of the issues that the PDRC used to attack her government during the 2013-2014 protests. The policy was condemned as a populist scheme designed to win votes for her party from poor rural farmers. 
 
Since the junta seized power, it has made a number of efforts to prosecute Yingluck. The most obvious is the use of Article 44 in late 2016 to grant legal immunity to officials involved in the prosecution, meaning that they cannot be held accountable if the prosecution is later proved unfair to Yingluck.
 
The junta’s attempts to prosecute Yingluck show that from their perspective, populist policies are still one of the biggest threats to the country. But as those in power cannot prevent people from making the ‘wrong choice’ (such as choosing populist policies), the prosecution of Yingluck serves as a threat to politicians who might think of doing something similar in the future. 
 
So the people will always have to make the “right choice” because There Is No Alternative.
 
 
Yingluck meets her supporters in front of the court before attending a hearing (Photo from Nation)