Marwaan Macan-Markar

Thailand’s rapidly expanding movement against privatisation is placing its faith in democracy to prove it has the edge over the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

At a public rally over the weekend here, which drew close to 10,000 supporters, activists reiterated a demand that has converted the government’s planned privatisation of the state-owned power utility into a political hot potato. The government should seek public approval of the privatisation of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) by holding a referendum, say the leaders of EGAT’s trade union, which has been at the vanguard of the anti-privatisation drive. And if Thaksin is averse to a referendum, he can test the popularity of his privatisation drive by making it an election campaign pledge, says the president of the EGAT union, Sirichai Mai-ngam.

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, which came to power in January 2001 following a massive victory at the polls, is due to face a national election in less than a year. During the past three years, Thaksin has continued to enjoy high levels of popularity despite a slew of government polices that faced a battery of criticism.The demand for public participation in the decision to privatise EGAT appears to resonate beyond the world of labour unions, as demonstrated during Saturday’s rally that was held in a field close to one the country’s symbols of political and civil liberties, the Democracy Monument. That the government can ill afford to ignore this snowballing issue stems not only from the fact that an election is coming up, but that the EGAT labour union has succeeded in sustaining the momentum of its drive against privatisation for over a month, which is significant in the Thai labour scene. Following its first show of strength on February 23, when it took to the streets with close to 10,000 people, the union has held daily, unbroken protests, with one gathering attracting as much as 50,000 people.

Support for the EGAT union has also come from the unions of 41 other state enterprises, labour rights activists from the private sector and representatives from an estimated 130 civil society organisations, ranging from consumer groups to environmentalists.

Even academics, students and non-governmental organisations championing the concerns of Thailand’s rural poor have lined up with the EGAT union.Since Feb. 23, the government has issued mixed messages about its EGAT plans that are under fire. In the main, Bangkok has not budged from its declared motive to privatise EGAT,which not only monopolises the country’s power sector but it is also the most profitable of Thailand’s state ventures. For the government, privatising EGAT is part of a plan to convert state enterprises to private entities. By registering it as a public company in the stock market, the government was hoping to raise $ 1.8 billion.That money, officials have argued, will go to pay for new projects to meet the country’s power needs, rather than having the state borrow money if EGAT remains a state utility. Retaining the status quo would only burden taxpayers and increase the public debt, their argument goes. — IPS