The Thai government’s approach to Thailand’s longstanding haze problem needs more than just short-term measures. But legislative and political obstacles stand in the way of successfully passing the laws required to address the issue.
Like many countries in Southeast Asia, haze has become an annual affliction in Thailand. Thailand’s haze season often occurs from October to April, mostly in Bangkok and the Northern region. The situation appears to be worsening every year. Earlier this year, 33 provinces were affected, and the haze exceeded the safety threshold in all areas in Bangkok. The root causes are multifaceted, involving agriculture, transport, and industry. The largest culprits are road transport and illegal agricultural burning.
A recent February 2021 report from the Stockholm Environment Institute raised the urgency for Thailand to adopt more systematic and sustained efforts to combat haze. It cannot be treated as an ad-hoc problem. However, the Thai government’s approach to the problem thus far appears to be precisely that. It has generally adopted short-term measures, such as introducing the app Air4Thai to inform people the level of air quality, detecting vehicles with excessive smoke and spraying water into the air. The lack of proper coordination among the various Thai ministries has been a serious impediment to a more effective response. Currently, responsibility for ensuring good air quality has been passed around different institutions: the Pollution Control Department, the Ministry of Transport, and the Ministry of Health.
One solution to this public health issue is stricter regulations and law enforcement. Currently, Thailand does not have any law explicitly targeting air pollution. The issue is instead mentioned sparsely in several related laws: the National Environmental Quality Act, the Water Resources Act, and the Public Health Act. But the efforts to address continue to face significant legislative and political obstacles. Since 2019, four bills on air pollution have been drafted, three of which were already introduced to Parliament. The three drafts include 1) the Draft Act on Clean Air for the People, 2) the Draft Act on Clean Air Management, and 3) the Draft Act on Reporting on the Emissions and Movement of Pollutants into the Environment. The fourth bill is currently the object of a petition process. Once 10,000 signatures are collected, the draft will be introduced to Parliament.
The first two bills – the Draft Act on Clean Air for the People, drafted by the government coalition member the Bhumjaithai Party, and the Draft Act on Clean Air Management, prepared by the Board of Trade – share similar content. Both introduce rights to clean air and the ability to sue polluters. They also encourage public participation in policymaking on air quality.
The third bill was introduced by representatives of an opposition party – the Move Forward Party. It focuses on establishing a systematic database on pollution, collected from relevant stakeholders, to be shared with the public to spread awareness of air pollution and its causes.
The final bill – drafted by a civil society group called Thailand Clean Air Network (Thailand CAN) – is similar to the first two, concerning people’s right to clean air. However, this bill goes deeper into identifying and prioritising vulnerable groups, such as children, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases, and providing them with free health check-ups. The bill also proposes that the government provide people with support to take legal action against those who cause excessive pollution.
Passing and implementing one of these bills would be a promising step towards air pollution management in Thailand. However, the legal processes have not been smooth.
It is not improbable that the justification of budget considerations was just a convenient pretext to stall the passage of the bills. Giving people the right to take legal actions against polluters would hit the vested interests of big businesses and industries.
The first three bills were initially rejected when presented to Parliament. The President of the House of Representatives, Democrat Party MP and former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai reasoned that they were ‘money bills’, with implications for the government budget. According to Sections 133 and 134 of the military-drafted 2017 Constitution, bills related to monetary matters can only be introduced to Parliament once endorsed by the prime minister. The three bills were thus sent to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, who declined to endorse the first two and has yet to respond to the third.
This legal process has been part of Thailand’s legal system since 1946 and has been a controversial topic due to the ambiguous definition of ‘money bills’. Anything requiring budgetary planning, which is virtually all draft laws, can be deemed a money bill.
The process also gives the prime minister ultimate power to decide which bills can be introduced to Parliament. As of January 2021, Prime Minister Prayut had declined to endorse at least 12 money bills and kept a further 27 frozen. The majority of those bills were proposed by opposition parties.
It is not improbable that the justification of budget considerations was just a convenient pretext to stall the passage of the bills. Giving people the right to take legal actions against polluters would hit the vested interests of big businesses and industries. For example, the automobile industry could face stricter regulations on emission standards, which would, in turn, make manufacturing more costly. Agri-businesses would also have to make their supply chains more transparent by reporting whether their factories release excessive pollution or are involved in illegal burning.
The draft laws also encourage public participation in policymaking, giving people more power in the political sphere – an idea unlikely to find support from the military-influenced Prayut government. This is especially the case given recent movements in which young people have challenged that government’s legitimacy.
These factors, along with the fate of the previously submitted bills, suggest that Thailand CAN’s draft has little hope of being passed, even if it attracts 10,000 signatures. It will probably take much more political wrangling before the prime minister endorses an air pollution draft act. Till then, the health of the Thai people remains hostage to powerful interests.