Thai junta pushing renovation unseen for decades

In the six weeks since the military took control, actions unseen during decades of elected governments have been unveiled.

Following its vow to return happiness to all, the junta is apparently encouraging its officials and members of independent organisations to introduce sweeping reforms. The focus ranges from motorcycle taxis to something as big as qualifications needed to become a lawmaker.

The military-led renovation sheds light on just how lax and incompetent the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and city police have been. After years of complaints, unregistered motorcycle taxis are finally being cracked down upon. From now on, Bangkokians can be assured that their motorcycle tax service is accountable and safer.

Footpaths are being returned to pedestrians as the obstacle course of street vendors is dismantled, also clearing more road space for vehicles.

The issue of illegal workers is getting the same treatment. For years, the private sector has been crying foul over manpower shortages, but no government has taken action. While they have opened doors to nearly 3 million migrant workers from neighbouring countries, it is estimated that over half are unregistered. Laws were weakly enforced, presumably to leave room for officials to practice extortion.

Thanks to the junta, migrant workers' suffering is being taken seriously. I guess many scriptwriters will have to find a new plot, as registered workers should be protected from any kind of extortion.

Since the May coup, some educators have been saying Thailand's political turmoil is rooted in poor civic education as well as a lack of patriotism. They proposed a new curriculum that combines the two subjects.

Honestly, I don't think patriotism can be taught in school. I don't recall any teacher telling me, as a child, how to love my country. We were just ordered to be at school early enough to line up in front of the flagpole and sing the national anthem as the flag was raised.

Instead, it was family visits to temples and my grandparents' home that unveiled the niceties of Thai culture. A holiday in Pattaya taught me how beautiful Thailand's beaches could be. Studying at Thammasat University, where students came from all over the country, opened doors to the diverse cultures and flavours of each region. Overseas trips then taught me in what ways Thailand is superior to other countries, and in what ways we are inferior. Is this the same sense of patriotism that the educators are talking about? I'm not sure.

As yet, we don't know when the new curriculum will take shape and be tried out.

How future governments will view the changes is anyone's guess, but future lawmakers should be more worried about new rules proposed by the Election Commission (EC).

Established in 1992, following the May bloodbath, the EC took over from the Interior Ministry's Department of Provincial Administration (DPA) in overseeing elections at all levels. Back then, vote-buying was rampant and the DPA was seen to be taking sides with those in power. The independent EC, with five commissioners appointed by the Senate, has taken charge of elections ever since.

The five commissioners came under heavy fire for their handling of this year's February 2 election. That's in the past. Now, as they wait for the next national poll, probably in 2015, the commissioners are being encouraged to improve the election process.

The discussion is not over yet, but the EC's main focus is on blocking "ill-intentioned" politicians by introducing a new set of rules. The proposal is that the EC be given the power to screen all parties' election campaigns and block any blatantly populist policies. Such an idea - effectively confiscating the power of public judgement - would be inconceivable without the junta in control.

I guess that to make this reform possible, we would need a revision of the law that governs the body. Still, it also raises the question of how these Senate-appointed commissioners could make a decision that is right for all voters. It's worth noting that 73 of Thailand's 150 senators are appointed, so they do not (in theory) represent any groups.

How the EC can gratify public demand while at the same time retaining its unassuming, independent stance is beyond imagination.

And while the private sector's call for labour reform has been answered to a degree, what about their demand for infrastructure investment to boost the country's long-term competitiveness?

Politicians have always garnered opinions from the private sector, but in the future, formulating these opinions into election campaigns won't be permitted without the EC's approval.

These initiatives, considered inconceivable in the past, have been made real by the junta's power. The plot is thickening: where exactly will the reform process lead Thailand?