About politics | Bangkok Post: opinion

NRSA under pressure to come up with ‘pro-reform’ bills, which critics say fall short of the mark v Legal expert Borwornsak goes all guns blazing as chair of national advisory board v Transport minister to sit on a committee to salvage rail projects

Racing for reform

The National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) has been thrust under the media spotlight just as it approaches the end of its shelf life, and despite the fact that it is often dismissed as playing second fiddle to the more authoritative National Legislative Assembly (NLA).

These are two of the so-called “five rivers” of power, led by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The others include the cabinet and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC).

The NRSA was created with a mandate to pick up where the now-dissolved National Reform Council left off. The council built up the formative groundwork for national reform, spelling out what overhauls the country needed to make, and then passed the torch to the NRSA.

The NRSA then pressed ahead with the reforms and, as its name suggests, steered them in specific directions, embellished them with extra detail, and segmented them into working clusters implemented by the appropriate ministries and agencies.

For the first few months, the NRSA was busy designing a host of bills to turn the reform blueprints into reality, and it was not until recently that it finally emerged from its bunker.

However, the assembly has been shackled by time constraints as its term expires in early August. Driven by the urge to showcase what it has accomplished, it has produced a number of “pro-reform” bills, but critics complain they are only superficially “progressive”.

Others say the fruits of the NRSA’s labour may hint at the ambitions of certain assembly members who harbour political aspirations they hope to realise once the body is dissolved.

One political source said that at least two bills initiated by the NRSA have drawn the wrath of politicians, as well as those members of Thai society who will be affected by them.

Although the NRSA is powerless to enact laws on its own — it must first present its proposals to the cabinet, the Council of State and subsequently the NLA, which can water down their content almost beyond recognition — its actions have made people question whether the NRSA knows what it is doing, according to the source.

A few weeks ago the assembly voted in favour of a bill to “protect” the media, causing an instant firestorm. The media insisted the idea to licence reporters and form a professional body to regulate the media with sitting representatives from the government was an affront to the freedom of the press, and demanded the bill be dropped. However, the assembly thought, and acted, otherwise.

This week the assembly has put itself back in the firing line by sponsoring the new cyber security bill.

Pol Maj Gen Phisit Pao-in, in his capacity as vice chairman of the NRSA’s committee on mass media, suggested Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha invoke Section 44 of the former interim charter — which is still valid under Section 265 of the 2017 charter — to set up a cybersecurity committee until the bill comes into force.

This has understandably raised eyebrows among political watchers and NRSA members themselves.

The issue made headlines in the wake of the WannaCry ransomware cyber attack, which spread around the globe last weekend and halted public services and businesses in many countries.

“To ensure that current and future cyber security threats are handled properly, we propose that the government submit the bill to the NLA as soon as possible,” Pol Maj Gen Phisit said.

But other NRSA members pointed out the bill could not guarantee officials will not abuse their authority and violate people’s right to privacy. They agreed the bill must clearly state that freedom of expression will not be restricted and privacy will be safeguarded.

Some critics have pointed out that quite a few NRSA members may be motivated to highlight their achievements so they gain consideration as potential candidates for seats in a future Senate, which may emerge as a powerful political force after the general election.

Democrat Party deputy leader, Ong-art Klampaiboon, has firmly opposed the NRSA’s proposal to rush all 36 reform-based bills into law through the use of the all-mighty Section 44 powers.

He argued that the content of the bills would be improved if normal legislative procedures were allowed to run their course.

Legal eagle back from the brink

The appointment of one of the country’s best-known legal experts, Borwornsak Uwanno, as chair of the government’s 23-member national advisory board supervising legal reform surprised many because Mr Borwornsak would presumably have had to swallow his pride first.

The latest title to his long list of credentials came as a shock to many observers who thought the legal eagle would have had enough of the current administration, according to a political source.

Observers might feel it reasonable to assume that Mr Borwornsak was still nursing his wounds after he headed the first Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), which had its draft charter torpedoed by the now-defunct National Reform Council (NRC).

That prompted the formation of the second CDC headed by Meechai Ruchupan.

Mr Borwornsak could not contain his frustration at the demise of the charter. His committee wrote and subsequently described his work at the CDC as a “thankless” job.

He also went on to say it was his understanding that the NRC, appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), sank the draft charter so the NCPO could stay in power longer while a second CDC was set up, and the process of writing the charter began again.

But those “wounds” were inflicted two years ago and may already have healed, according to the source.

During the past two years, Mr Borwornsak, who formerly held the prestigious posts of secretary-general to both the cabinet and King Prajadhipok’s Institute, has kept a low profile.

However, his absence was cut short on Monday with the news that he had been hand-picked by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to head the national advisory board supervising legal reform.

The order appointing the board members was signed by the premier.

When asked to elaborate on his decision to return to the task set him by the junta government, Mr Borwornsak said: “I want to spend my time in peace. No comment.”

Nonetheless, he apparently hit the ground running, having called the advisory board to its first meeting yesterday along with staff from the prime minister’s office of policy management as well as representatives from the Council of State, the Cabinet Secretariat Office and the Law Reform Committee.

The source said Mr Borwornsak was fully prepared to start working on the advisory board immediately under the directive of Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam.

The board’s core tasks cover matters best suited to Mr Borwornsak’s expertise. They involve improving or cancelling existing laws or regulations which are obsolete. The axe is expected to fall on those laws and regulations that hinder people from making a living or contradict the evolving political, economic or social situation.

The board is expected to deliver the goods and bring all laws into compliance with national reform targets and the 20-year national strategy the government has laid out.

Apart from those existing laws the board must deal with, various reform-minded bills may need to be fine-tuned. This includes the contentious bill to reform the media sponsored by the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), which has become something of a sore point. The bill, which won the approval of the assembly recently and will be vetted by the cabinet and the National Legislative Assembly, has courted controversy for attempting to licence reporters and launch a professional body to regulate media personnel.

Yet this bill could also be subject to modification if the board gets the opportunity to do so, as Mr Borwornsak may well sympathise with the media’s frustrations having retained close contacts and interactions with reporters for a long time.

For many onlookers, Mr Borwornsak’s appointment kindles hope that he will help screen and adjust certain laws and bills and do away with any content that could ignite a new round of conflict in society.

Trying to stay on track

It has been said that a strong dose of patience and perseverance is a virtue when dealing with the Chinese at the negotiating table, as Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith has learned first hand.

As a minister directing the most expensive rail transport projects in the country’s history, Mr Arkhom has been in and out of meeting rooms and bargaining with investors and foreign parties to iron out difficult deals in the hope that the projects will see the light of day.

The government, determined to build modern and fast trains in a bid to ramp up rail connectivity, has been courting countries with an interest in investing in these projects.

A major investor is China, Thailand’s longstanding ally, which is also one of the toughest parties to negotiate with.

Thai-Chinese cooperation in rail project development dates back to the Democrat Party-led administration of 2010, when a memorandum of understanding was signed to register a 90-billion-baht joint venture aimed at paving the way for construction of a high-speed rail route from Bangkok to Nong Khai worth almost 200 billion baht.

During the next government under the Pheu Thai Party, an agreement was sealed with China to build two high-speed rail routes, from Bangkok to Nong Khai and from Bangkok to Chiang Mai at a combined cost of 300 billion baht.

China proposed to conduct the feasibility studies of the routes free of charge on the condition that the Thai side would pay for the construction cost in agricultural produce. However, the projects collapsed when the Pheu Thai-led government was toppled by the military coup in May 2014.

After the National Council for Peace and Order swept to power, it vowed to push ahead with the rail development programme but dropped the ambitious high-speed train proposal.

Instead, it opted for medium-high speed train projects linking Bangkok and Nong Khai, and another route linking Kaeng Khoi in Saraburi and Map Ta Phut on the eastern cost.

However, last year, a top-level policy change saw the project stall, after nine rounds of fruitless talks between the transport ministers of the two countries. At the same time, the government was reluctant to shelve the projects to avoid diplomatic friction with Beijing, according to a source close to the matter.

The source said China may have pushed the envelope when it put forth conditions on the deal which the government found hard to swallow, including a 50-year lease of the land along the rail route and around the train stations for commercial development.

The government later decided to wholly invest in the projects but use Chinese technology and Chinese-made train carriages.

The talks revealed China’s exceptional acumen as it attempted to drive a hard bargain.

The agreement in which Chinese negotiators initially pledged to conduct the project feasibility studies for free later turned out to entail hefty costs running into hundreds of millions of baht, which was not a government-to-government rate, according to the source.

The minister sifted through every detail of the deal and confronted points which might be hard to meet.

This week in Bangkok, Mr Arkhom is due to sit on a Thai-Chinese committee on the rail project, which is expected to conclude a number of points in the contractual agreements and discuss materials to be used in route construction.