Process of transformation: Thailand seeks stronger engagement and dialogue with international actors, from disaster management and response, to national reform

Published: 11 December 2014 16:42 CET

By Lucia Cipullo, IFRC Regional Disaster Law Delegate for South East Asia

As a country that has suffered from large scale natural disasters, faced numerous political challenges, but being the only country in South East Asia never subject to colonial rule, Thailand casts an interesting and unique presence in the region.

The past few weeks have seen two key events take place which indicate a growing interest in Thailand to seek engagement and dialogue with international partners in the name of national progress, increasing capacity, and reform. 

Legal preparedness for international disaster response

On November 27th, over sixty representatives from Thai government ministries, the Armed Forces, Thai Red Cross, the United Nations, academia and civil society organisations came together to discuss how to improve Thailand's legal preparedness for international disaster response in line with international disaster response law (IDRL). This national workshop was convened by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Thai Red Cross, and the Ministry of Interior’s Department for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM).

“We live in a region that is constantly facing large and small scale natural disasters”, stated Mr. Tej Bunnag, Assistant Secretary General of Thai Red Cross, as he opened the IDRL workshop.  “The growing number of disasters in South East Asia reinforces the importance for local, national and international partners to work together to increase our preparedness. Despite the growing capacity of states in the region to prepare for and respond to disasters, international assistance can still be required”. 

These sentiments were echoed by DDPM, who co-hosted the IDRL workshop. “Large scale disasters like the 2004 tsunami are quite rare for Thailand, compared to other countries in the region…[and] in the past there has not been much pressure to develop legal frameworks for IDRL. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be legally prepared”, stated Mr. Arun Pinta, Chief of Foreign Relations at DDPM. “We are still trying to learn lessons from the tsunami and also the 2011 floods, and identify a way to integrate our ideas and draft a new ‘whole of government’ plan’.  This plan includes the development of a new guideline on international assistance and cooperation.

What was clear from the discussions that day is the need to engage and communicate across the different ministries, departments, non-government organizations and international organizations involved in disaster response in Thailand, with regard to roles, responsibilities, and the relevant rules and procedures that govern disaster response operations which may require international assistance.

Shifts at the national and regional levels

The IDRL workshop presented an opportunity to also discuss the role of international disaster assistance in the context of middle income countries (MICs), and recognize the significant developments that have taken place in South East Asia in disaster management. “There has been an enormous improvement in disaster management in the region”, remarked Mr. Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, Deputy Head of the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “Most countries have now established national disaster management authorities, and the associated laws and regulations”.

“While middle income countries are less likely to ask for international disaster assistance” continued Rhodes Stampa, who chaired a panel discussion during the IDRL workshop, “there is not a country in the world that can be utterly self- reliant, as we have seen after disasters in high-income countries like Japan, the US and New Zealand.  There is a need to have legal frameworks in place so that, even in the rare case that international assistance is required, states are ready for it”.

Links with national reform in Thailand, and engaging the international community

One week after the IDRL workshop, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) held a landmark event to discuss “the path to reform” in Thailand. This event was convened by MOFA in collaboration with the National Assembly of Thailand and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).  The IFRC was invited to participate in the dialogue, together with over 100 representatives from diplomatic missions in Thailand, national and local government, and academics.  Although not directly related to disaster management and response, these discussions also highlighted the importance of working together with international actors to build a stronger, more stable, and better prepared Thailand, and having the right laws in place to support this. 

“Thailand is at a critical juncture”, stated the Secretary General of the Inter Parliamentary Union, Mr. Martin Chungong, during his key note speech.  “The [reform] process is not only about changing institutions and law, but changing mentalities”, he stated.  MOFA’s event also reflects the wider dialogue that is happening in Thailand right now –a process which is seeking to reform the political landscape and national and local governance– and is looking to the international community for their support.

The basis of this reform, as highlighted by Professor Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, President of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), “is understanding and acceptance of the local, national and international community”. 

When it comes to legal preparedness for international disaster assistance, many participants at the IDRL workshop remarked how this was the one of the first times that all of the relevant actors had been brought together to discuss this issue – including the international community.

“By bringing together policy makers, managers, implementers and academics, we have shared a common understanding, gained insights on needs and gaps in Thailand, and recognized complementary roles of each organization”, remarked Mr. Werasit Sittitrai, Director of Policy and Strategy at Thai Red Cross. “We have also now been motivated to coordinate and work together as a team to achieve legal preparedness for effective international disaster response in our country, in line with the current changes and developments in Thailand”.