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A tangible hope: Imagining Thailand’s green development under the progressive-leaning government





Introduction

Thailand now stands at a critical juncture in its pursuit of sustainable development. Over the past few years, the country has witnessed a plethora of environmental issues which not only threaten the economy but also endanger the people’s well-being in the long term. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, the Disease Control Department reported that a staggering number of Thai people fell ill because of the high level of Particulate Matters 2.5 (PM2.5) pollution (The Nation, 2023).


Despite the efforts of the junta government, led by former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, to tackle environmental issues through the implementation of initiatives such as the Bio-Circular-Green Economic model (BCG) and the Carbon Offsetting Programme, these strategies have proven inadequate in alleviating the problems at hand. In addition, certain projects, like the carbon credit scheme, have contributed to the appropriation of local communities’ lands, triggering mass protests and public scrutiny (Elinoff & Lamb, 2023; Wongruang, 2023).


However, the outcome of the recent election witnessed two progressive parties, the Move Forward Party (MFP) and the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), securing the most seats in the parliament. With this result, a majority of voters believe that the country’s development under a progressive-leaning government will bring about a tangible hope for a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable future. This article argues that the government led by the MFP and PTP possesses a transformative potential to shape Thailand’s sustainable future, provided they succeed in establishing their government.

Greening the country: The junta government’s eco-economic development pathway

Thailand’s rapid industrialisation process began in the late 1970s. Despite the exceptional economic growth it brought about between the 1980s and 1990s (Warr, 2020, p. 38), this process undermined environmental resilience and jeopardised the well-being of the country’s population (Forsyth, 2001). Consequently, and in light of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, the government shifted toward an eco-developmental trajectory, implementing a pro-environmental industrialisation strategy to balance long-term growth and ecological concerns (Elinoff & Lamb, 2023).


The former PM Chan-o-cha’s administration followed their predecessors’ path. One prominent initiative to drive the country towards green growth is the implementation of the BCG. This model amalgamates three key economies, namely bioeconomy, circular economy, and green economy, into a unified framework (NSTDA, 2022). In raising international recognition, the government presented the BCG at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2022, and successfully managed to have the model integrated into the APEC leader’s declaration (Wongruang, 2023).


Notwithstanding, the BCG has fallen short of its core objectives of promoting sustainability and equality, as it turned out to be prioritising policies that maintain power and influence within the hands of the privileged elite.

Not-so-green: The hidden costs of military-ruled government’s eco-development

Over the past several years, the BCG has received significant scrutiny from the public, NGOs, and environmental activists. During the APEC meeting last year, several NGOs, such as Greenpeace, and activists gathered near the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, where the summit was held, and demanded that the APEC leaders turned down the government’s BCG proposal, accusing the BCG of “greenwashing” (Thai PBS World’s Regional Desk, 2022).


Inevitably, questions were raised as representatives of various influential companies from various industries, such as sugar, food, and alcohol, were allocated seats on the BCG executive committee and various sub-committees. Hence, critics alleged that the model prioritises profit-making and corporate interests for large private firms under the guise of green development (Deetes, 2022; Elinoff & Lamb, 2023).


In addition, the BCG was criticised for its carbon credit scheme. Whether or not the scheme helps cut the country’s emissions, it has raised concerns over the potential appropriation of forest-dwelling communities’ lands, facilitating private companies to capitalise on these lands under the banner of the government’s carbon offset project (Elinoff & Lamb, 2023). To exemplify, the planned wind turbine project in Tambon Paniad, located in the central province of Lopburi, is facing immense opposition due to concerns that it could lead to competition over forest land and negatively impact local livelihoods (Wongruang, 2023).


These criticisms shed light on the flaws in the government’s green development policy embedded in the BCG model, posing an immediate challenge that the upcoming government must overcome to effectively steer the country toward a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future.

A brighter future under the progressive-leaning government?

The recent election witnessed the MFP and PTP winning most seats in the parliament. Although the process of forming the government is still ongoing, it has triggered a sense of optimism among Thai people, activists, and those who oppose the former PM Chan-o-cha administration’s green development policy. Both parties have proposed numerous measures and initiatives that seem to address the shortcomings in the previous government’s policy.

To begin with, the MFP has been placing an emphasis on addressing the country’s environmental issues for years. In February this year, the party introduced the “Thailand’s Environment Move Forward” strategy, which encapsulates a wide range of policies to tackle the root cause of Thailand’s greenhouse gas emissions as well as to mitigate the impacts of climate change (Komchadluek, 2023). These involve using market-based solutions (cap-and-trade system and grounding a standard in trading in the country’s carbon market), reforestation subsidised by the government, and incentivising farmers to shift away from a slash-and-burn agricultural method. Along with the Clean Air Act (CAA), which establishes environmental standards of decent air quality, the MFP strongly encourages the implementation of the Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTR), a regulation that requires industries to disclose their pollutant releases and transfers to the designated governmental body each year (Wancharoen, 2022). If enforced, the PRTR would increase transparency and promote the public’s right to access information on pollutant releases and transfers from industries. This regulation will enable the locals to monitor the highly polluting industries and better assess the potential impacts of such emissions on their communities.


Similarly, the PTP has consistently advocated the country’s eco-developmental trajectory, addressing air pollution as the utmost priority. Earlier this year, the PTP announced three sets of policies to combat air pollution consisting of short-term, medium-term, and long-term plans (Pheu Thai Party, n.d.). For instance, the long-term plan involves developing alternative and eco-friendly horticultural methods, advocating for the enforcement of the CAA, and promoting the role of local governments in policymaking (Pheu Thai Party, n.d.). The CAA has been one of the utmost agendas of the party even before the election. In March 2023, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, one of the PTP’s executives, reiterated that “when the PTP succeeds in forming the government, the mitigation of air pollution will become the national agenda, and clean air must become a fundamental right of all peoples” (Thairath, 2023a). This further underscores the PTP’s unwavering determination to ensure people’s right to access and breathe clean air.


Taken together, the MFP and the PTP have two main commonalities. First, both parties concur that environmental challenges are among their top priorities and require immediate and collaborative action, with air pollution as the most urgent issue to be addressed. Second, both parties are the advocators of the CAA, emphasising that the Act is a pragmatic solution to address the issue of air pollution in Thailand. Considering that the MFP and PTP obtain the most seats in the parliament, their shared visions are particularly significant. With their combined influence, they can effectively pressure their partners and other parties’ representatives to support the implementation of the Act.


Equally important, the other six parties that decided to join the MFP-led coalition all stress their attempts to address the country’s environmental challenges and drive Thailand toward sustainability. For example, before the election, the Thai Sarng Thai Party expressed their attempt to subsidise the production of electric vehicles and other green industries. By offering tax cuts, the party has also sought to encourage businesses to participate in the Volk Green Park project, which aims to increase green spaces across communities and boost eco-tourism (Thairath, 2023b). As such, this unified vision could lead to an all-encompassing strategy to tackle the environmental issues faced by the country and propel it toward a sustainable future.


On the one hand, all the above policies seem to reflect the underlying principles of the BCG model, which is to balance between long-term growth and ecological conservation. On the other hand, they prioritise ensuring the involvement of the local communities and those whom the BCG marginalised in the policymaking process. Since the BCG excluded such groups, the strategies proposed by the MFP and PTP seem to address this flaw of the BCG effectively. For all the aforementioned reasons, the progressive-leaning coalition wields a transformative potential to steer the country toward a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable future.

Conclusion

Having faced wide-ranging environmental challenges, Thailand now finds itself at a pivotal moment in its efforts toward achieving sustainable development. Despite the lack of progress in tackling these problems during the former PM Chan-o-cha’s administration, the victory of the progressive-leaning coalition in a recent election offers tangible hope to the Thai population, especially the youth and the future generation who will endure the slow violence of these environmental issues of our time.


However, recent political circumstances have painted a stark picture of this hope. On 13 and 19 July, respectively, the MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s bid to become the new PM was rejected twice by the junta-appointed Senate, which also holds the right to select the PM as per the 2017 Constitutional reform (Bangkok Post, 2023a). Subsequently, the party announced to step aside and enable the PTP to lead the coalition (Bangkok Post, 2023a).

Pressured by the Senate, which insisted that they will not vote for the PTP’s PM candidate in the upcoming parliamentary PM selection if the MFP remains in the coalition (Bangkok Post, 2023b), the PTP announced on this Wednesday (2 August) that they will withdraw from the progressive-leaning coalition and will instead form a government with the conservative bloc (Thepgumpanat & Setboonsarng, 2023). As a result, this puts the MFP, along with the other six parties in the coalition, in the place of the opposition. Thus, the extent to which the future this article has discussed comes true now hinges on how effectively the MFP-led coalition, as the opposition, can push its environmental agenda and confront the conservatives in the coming months. Otherwise, it seems far from certain whether this tangible hope can be achieved.


This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.


 

References

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Bangkok Post. (2023b, July 23). Pheu Thai: coalition including Move Forward unlikely to prevail.


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Thairath. (2023a, March 30). Paethongtarn-Setha extends encouragement to fire victims in “Nakhon Nayok-Northern Region. https://www.thairath.co.th/news/politic/2667680


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The Nation. (2023, March 9). Air pollution has made over 1.3 million Thais sick this year. https://www.nationthailand.com/thailand/general/40025562


Thepgumpanat, P. & Setboonsarng, C. (2023, August 2). Thailand's Pheu Thai aims to form government after poll winner sidelined. Reuters.

Wancharoen, S. (2022, July 7). Pollutant register vital, govt told. Bangkok Post. https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2341267/pollutant-register-vital-govt-told


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