Thailand, known as the Land of Smiles, is also a land of contrasts and rapid transformation, on the economic, political and social levels. As the country is working hard to find its own particular path amid the globalized changes of the 21st Century, FES has been supporting its officials, citizens and civil society to build inclusive and equitable practices and institutions across several areas.
These are exciting times for Thailand. The military government has indicated there will be an election in 2019, five years after it took power. The country has a new constitution, and civic engagement is on the rise. There is also a growing interaction with global trends on civil society and governance issues.
Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung has been working with Thailand’s citizens, organizations, institutions and government more than 40 years, to promote socially just economic and political development in the context of a changing world.
“Thailand is going through a period of change on many levels,” said Stine Klapper, Resident Director of the country office. “We have a chance to support Thais in building a brighter and more inclusive future.”
Not that FES has been sitting on its hands until now—a variety of projects have been running for decades in a wide range of areas.
One of the foundation’s longest-running projects has been with the trade unions. Thailand is a manufacturing hub, and is experiencing the global move towards increased automation, online work and what is becoming known as the gig economy. These paradigm shifts represent an opportunity to add new and better jobs but also increase the risks of precarious or insufficient employment. FES supports workers’ organizations to ensure that their rights and job security are preserved amid all these changes.
The foundation works with the Northern Labour Network, which brings together workers and civil society organizations to identify common issues, and build strategies to face them together. This collaboration has enabled them to lobby local authorities in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, to legislate for improved workers’ protection, among other successes.
Another result of FES support is visible in the capital Bangkok, not far from where the FES office occupies part of the 23rd floor in a modern high-rise near the central Sukhumvit road. Less than a kilometre to the north is the Thai Labour Museum, opened in 1993 with FES support in the former railway police station. The single-story red building now houses exhibitions that tell the sometimes difficult story of the country’s labour force, from the days of slavery through the evolution of workers’ rights.
Currently, FES supports the museum to serve as information and communication centre for workers with the production of a digital newsletter Labour Review and educational materials on emerging issues such as ‘just transition’. The museum is also used by workers’ organizations to hold meetings and events.
Education has been another focus of Thailand’s social policy in recent years, and FES has been working with several universities and other local partners to promote civic education and democratic citizenship. Training those who teach others is the best way to effect rapid change for the widest number of people. The FES-supported teacher training programmes have consistently been oversubscribed, a testament both to the appeal of the project, and to the commitment by local Thai partners and citizens to the principles of social justice.
This work to build the country’s democratic citizenship has been led by a network of Thai academics, education officials and civil society in recent years. A key element of this was the 2016 founding of the Thai Civic Education Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, with support from FES and others.
At a policy level, FES engages with policy communities through its Economy of Tomorrow programme. In 2017, this had two focus topics: taxation and digital transformation. Participants include academics and think tanks, in the field of economics but also political science, as well as NGOs and labour organizations, and the media.
“Fiscal probity may seem like a dry topic, but it is an essential foundation to any state’s provision of services to its citizens” - Stine Klapper
Thailand’s taxation is facing particular challenges regarding the effectiveness of collection, the provision of services, and social justice. “Fiscal probity may seem like a dry topic, but it is an essential foundation to any state’s provision of services to its citizens,” said Klapper. “It is about improving the lives of the people.” The Economy of Tomorrow forum provides a platform to discuss possible improvements to the fiscal system, between decision makers and stakeholders.
Regarding digital transformation, the forum examines the impact of increased connectivity on economic activity and beyond. This includes the more social aspects of the internet, such as security, privacy and freedom of information and expression.
Looking forwards, FES is also working with partners to develop the youth with the range of skills they will need to contribute to a more socially just future, in areas including women’s rights and news media.
A recent study by FES explored the particular dynamics of political feminism in modern Thailand (link to the study in English and Thai).
Working from this stocktaking exercise, FES is launching a focused programme to bring together the diverse threads of national initiatives in this complex field. Another project will consist of a magazine oriented towards popular culture, to bring discussions around feminism out of the academic and political arenas, and into the everyday lives of young Thai women.
Another forwards-looking project is the range of programmes under the FES umbrella initiative on networks for social democracy. A school for investigative journalism has been running trainings for the past couple of years. This will be complemented from July 2018 with a summer school for committed youth, where they can attend workshops and form networks to gain the skills to build a better future for their country. ###
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