Abhisit Vejjajiva is the latest in a long procession of prime ministers in Thailand's recent history of democracy. The country's constitution was only amended to reflect its status as a constitutional monarchy after a bloodless coup in 1932 against King Prajadhipok, who ruled as an absolute monarch. Since then, there has been a profusion of prime ministers and military coups.
The man Abhisit immediately replaced as prime minister is Somchai Wongsawat of the People Power Party (PPP), but in the eyes of political pundits – and the mass movements known as the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts – the person whom Abhisit really replaced was Thaksin Shinawatra. To cut a long story short, Abhisit's Democratic Party came to power on the back of a political accomodation in the national assembly, after the Thai courts had declared the PPP illegal. The PPP was widely seen as Thaksin's (also outlawed) Thai Rak Thai in another form.
The Democratic Party had not won the majority of the popular vote in recent Thai elections. Abhisit, however, understandably contests this perception, given the fluid nature Thai politics. Responding to a question by Paul Gabriel from The Star about whether his Democratic Party-led coalition government was one 'by the people', he was unequivocal and compelling in his reasoning.
"Of course it is, because I have been elected by a majority of parliamentarians who have been elected by the people," he said. "Moreover I think the way my government has governed over the last five months, we have been the most responsive and accountable to parliament, to public sentiment, I can say, than any government over the last seven or eight years.
"Witness the number of questions I have answered in the house, witness the amount of time I have spent inside the chamber to listen to all the debates, witness the way I responded to all public concerns and sentiments on all issues. This is surely a government by the people, and we’re certainly working for them."
Like Thaksin, Abhisit, 44, is of Thai-Chinese ancestry. Unlike the former, however, he appears a clear-eyed, cultivated man of letters as opposed to a top-down, decision-making CEO. His style was evident in the all-action, business-friendly policies that won Thaksin fans as much as it attracted critics, who observed that nations cannot be run like private corporations.
As much as Abhisit -- English-born, Eton-bred, and Oxford-educated -- now has to deal with the legacy of Thaksin's almost six years in power, he also has to deal with Thaksin himself, who is clearly still a political force to be reckoned with in spirit and in person. The way the Red Shirts managed to disrupt the high-level Asean Summit in Pattaya earlier this year was no mean feat.
It would be unwise to come to any conclusions on the similar problems that Thailand and Malaysia face as fledgling democracies, but it is certainly interesting to compare the growing pains of both countries, and the multi-faceted challenges faced by their leaders.
On the occasion of Abhisit's first official working visit to Malaysia, the prime minister's office speedily granted this interview in Bangkok two days before he was due to land, and not long after he returned to his country from Korea. We spoke just after the Bangkok Post had written that he was visiting Malaysia primarily because of the troubles in southern Thailand. Is the matter so pressing that he must?
"In terms of incidents, there continues to be an improvement," said Abhisit, "but it’s not something that you can ever be satisfied with when you see loss of lives and violent attacks almost on a daily basis. So it’s certainly a top concern [of ours]. We think that a good understanding of what the government is trying to do, and whatever cooperation we seek and receive and receive from Malaysia will help contribute to the solution… just basic cooperation in practical terms.
"I know it’s very difficult for people on the ground and also even more difficult perhaps for the central authorities in terms of people crossing the borders when there are incidents that happen. These are the things that we need to work on together."
When we met, Abhisit had just addressed a crowd at the Impact Muangthong Convention Centre on the outskirts of Bangkok on co-operative education. I spoke with Abhisit accompanied by Off The Edge, The Star, Astro Awani, and Utusan Malaysia.
Abdullah Ahmad: Prime Minister, I note that you now travel overseas. On Monday you will be in Kuala Lumpur. Does this mean that all is well in Bangkok, and that you now have broad enough support?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: I think we have swiftly restored order since the April unrest, and put in a process where reconciliation should be achieved through parliamentary committees and through the participation of the people. Obviously, I am always watchful of any developments that are negative, because the conflict and tensions have been on-going for a number of years and you can’t expect them to just disappear. But I have to stay focused too on my job. Part of my job is of course to make sure that cooperation with our neighbours and regional cooperation move ahead.
And how long will the relationship between you and the elite powerbrokers last?
It’s not about my relationship with any particular group. My government has come through the parliamentary democratic process. What is important is that we continue to work for the people and respond to their needs, and that any political changes that occur have to be through constitutional means – I think that’s the most important thing.
Does this mean the end of political crisis, tensions and demonstrations?
I don’t expect that there will be no more demonstrations. What I insist is that these demonstrations must be peaceful; they must be held within the confines of the constitution and the law. It is our job to make sure that that is the case.
When can constitutional reforms be expected?
We now have two parliamentary committees [on constitutional reform] and it depends on their recommendations. I believe that some of the issues that will come up in terms of the constitution or changes to the law might involve a process of public hearings and public representation, or even a referendum. The committees will make an interim report to the president of parliament very soon. I’ve yet to see their full recommendations, but I expect that there should be, by the end of the year, some clarity as to how much can be achieved in the short term, what issues might be deferred for the future, and what issues might be put to the people.
What are the chances of Thaksin returning to Thailand, voluntarily or otherwise?
It doesn’t appear that he would want to return voluntarily, so we would have to work on extradition. I know it’s not easy because there are only a limited number of countries where we have extradition agreements, but my job is to ensure that any Thai person that violates the law is held accountable, him as well as any other people in his position, comes back and fight their cases in court.
How are things in Southern Thailand? It seems the Thai-Muslims or Malays, as some call themselves, are angry – as are the Thai Buddhists, of course for different reasons. What are Bangkok's serious short- to long-term plans to resolve this festering problem?
Again, this is a problem that has evolved over time. But, I think over the last six, seven years, there has begun a new cycle of violence here, because of what I see as some policy mistakes made then. We want to correct that. The government has been clear that there will be key changes in our policy: the first is that our emphasis is now on development. We have a special committee made up of cabinet members and agencies that have drafted a major development and investment plan for the provinces spanning over the next two, three years. We expect the projects under it to be implemented in the second half of this year, maybe towards the last quarter. We think that they will create a number of opportunities and build goodwill, trust and confidence among the people. The emphasis has to be on development.
The second is, I have been very clear that our officials must be accountable for their actions despite the fact that we do have the emergency decree or martial law in place. Any exercise of our officials must be very sensitive to the problem of the violation of other people’s rights.
These are the policy decisions and we are implementing them. But it will take time before we see the results and even before we feel some of the impact. But I think it is the long, hard path that we have to take, with patience and tolerance. At the same time, in terms of short-term security issues, the security forces are there to make sure that people are safe, and they do what they can. I know it’s a very difficult job for them. They now work under the new structure, a new security law that has been in place since last year.
And your party has traditionally been very strong in the south, so rebuilding the people’s confidence in the government under you should be more achievable.
I intend to work with all parties, and I know parliament has been active on this. There is a special parliamentary committee set up on the issues and I’ve been engaged with it in the short-, medium- and long-term plans.
You have, I believe, promised a genuine new deal for the people – a new understanding, respect and justice for the people in the South, to bring them into the mainstream of Thai national life. That being the case, there seems to be more than a good chance that there will be peace, stability and prosperity there. The Bangkok Post yesterday reported the view of a Thai academic, who opines that, I quote: "If Thailand wants to invest and trade with the Muslim world, we need to solve the southern conflict in a thorough and transparent manner first." Would you like to comment?
Well, I’d say it’s a chicken and egg problem. We have to do both things simultaneously. I don’t think we can wait before there is complete stability, peace and order there because that’s not going to happen unless there’s development. On the other hand, obviously, trade and investment is very sensitive to the [political] situation. You have to make the two areas complement each other, that’s why I say we need development, and development requires trade and investment, not just government investment. There are projects by which we seek to enhance our cooperation with Malaysia, for instance, on halal products.
In other words, you are trying to integrate the southern Thais into the mainstream of the country’s development.
Yes, it’s not a question of integration; we have to earn their complete confidence that we are here to look after them in all dimensions, whether it’s security or whether it’s some opportunities.
I always tell critics of Asean: "Just imagine if Asean had not existed". How do you see the future of Asean? Will the rescheduled Asean Summit in Phuket be any different from previous summits? We have always had strong relations, Malaysia and Thailand. How do you see bilateral relations? Could they be better, closer and warmer?
We are at a very important juncture as far as Asean cooperation is concerned. We have a new charter now in place; we have to make sure that the provisions of the charter are implemented and also the spirit of the charter, which talks about a rules-based organisation, with some clear objectives, including on issues such as human rights, and actually move forward.
Now, given the diversity I know that it will be a process that requires work and time before it reaches the point where everybody can be satisfied. But you’re right in saying that the success of Asean is often unappreciated, that we have achieved a lot by holding the region together. At the same time, you cannot get away from the fact that we need to keep in touch with the rest of the world. So I hope that the summit at the end of this year will make concrete progress, for instance, in the setting up of the Asean human rights body, the furthering of economic cooperation not just among ourselves but also with our dialogue partners.
We hope to complete the FTAs with the [Asean] Plus 3 dialogue partners (China, Japan, and South Korea) and make more progress with the other three (India, Australia, and New Zealand) that make up the East Asia Summit. With the bilateral cooperation, I’ve already mentioned the opportunity in terms of cooperation on halal food products in Southern Thailand and also the northern part of Malaysia; given our plans for the south has been for [the setting up of] a special economic development zone, and Malaysia also has a northern economic development corridor, I think there’s an opportunity.
And we already have in place the growth triangle, the MGT, which is now being assessed and which should be enhanced. So in terms of economic cooperation, I think there’s still more room that we can explore and I think it could improve the bilateral relationship tremendously
Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the former foreign minister was from [the Democratic Party] and he is now Secretary General of Asean. That fact should be a great help in this endeavour.
Yes, Dr Surin helps move a lot of intra-Asean cooperation forward, and obviously, being from the South of Thailand, is very knowledgeable and close to our neighbours in the south. I think he will make very important contributions to bring the relationship closer. Not to mention that he was my deputy leader at the party before he left for the post.
What do you make of Jusuf Kalla's foreign policy proposal for Indonesia to 'reclaim' its role as leader of Asean and the region?
Indonesia is the country in Asean with the largest population, and for a long time in Asean cooperation, she has provided leadership. Many countries have best friends, and we should allow those who are close to lead us. Indonesia has some leadership qualities and strengths, Malaysia has some, Thailand has some, Singapore has some, the Philippines has some – we could all use what we can to drive Asean forward.
To come back to Thailand, I am impressed that despite what seems to be your weak position, your tenure may be longer than that of your immediate four predecessors…
I don’t think in those terms. What matters to me is that every day I stay in office, I have to work for the people and help pull the country out if this crisis. I won’t measure the success of my administration by the length of the stay, but what we achieve. I think that in a democratic system, if it’s better for the country to stay, you stay; if it’s better for the country to go, you go.
How many terms do you intend to serve?
Well, by law I’m only allowed eight years, but no Thai prime minister has managed that long anyway. I have for the current term about two-and-a-half years left. Frankly speaking, I don’t think that it would be appropriate to stay right to the end of the term, because we are in the process of reconciliation and reform and at some stage in the process, it would be appropriate to have elections.
Prime Minister, you seem to have bought some breathing space though perhaps it's too soon to count Thaksin out. Your stimulus package should help you win elections once freed of legal encumbrances…
To me, it’s not about breathing space for the government; it’s giving the country the opportunity. We need some stability because we need to make sure that there is a clear path out of this economic crisis; the stimulus package, particularly the second round that we’re putting through, is aimed at increasing the strength and competitiveness of the country. I think it’s long overdue. We need to invest in roads, irrigation, schools and healthcare centres. I think that’s what the Thai people deserve and it will be taking place over the next three years. We hope to have all the plans approved and implemented in the next few months. I hope that that would set the foundations for the recovery and a stronger Thailand at the end of the day. How that links in with the political developments is another matter.
Do you think there could emerge a third force in Thailand, in the space between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts?
Well, I think these things will evolve naturally. If there is, shall we say, a market for a ‘third force’, it will emerge because we have a relatively free regime in terms of setting up political parties.
Do you seriously think the game is up for the Red Shirts?
I don’t see it that way. I see some issues that the Red Shirts have brought up, particularly on the need to improve on the constitution and some of the aspects of our democracy. I think we should respond to those – and we are responding to those. In that sense, they (the Red Shirts) have concerns that society should take on board.
I think they’ll be a spent force if they concentrate on the interests of one person or a small group of people.
As we struggle to manage the economic crisis globally, how is Thailand coping in the face of declining tourism arrivals, exports and other matters that have suffered by political and economic events sharply coming together in the way they have in Thailand?
We begin by protecting the most vulnerable in our first stimulus package – the unemployed and the poorest in society. The stimulus package was aimed at keeping up purchasing power and compensating as much as we can, although we cannot obviously take on the full effect of the drop in exports and tourism. Meanwhile, it’s a good time for the tourism and export sectors to begin a process of review to increase their fundamental competitiveness.
We provide some special incentives for investment for instance through Invest Thailand, right up to the end this year; we’ve taken measures to help the tourism sector by waiving visa fees, reducing landing fees, providing insurance; we do what we can to help make sure that credit still flows to the export sector. It’s quite difficult because of the reluctance of the banking system. Those are the short-term plans.
With the second stimulus package, we invest in our infrastructure and invest in the competitiveness of the country as a whole. I think the tourism and the export sectors and the economy in general will benefit from it.
How would you describe the strength and the state of democracy in Thailand today and for the immediate future? How strong are its institutions?
The strength is that there is now far greater awareness and desire on the part of the people to make sure that our democracy continues to develop and mature. The weaknesses, of course, are a sign of growing pains. Sometimes, for instance, when we are very aware of our rights, we overstep the limit of the law and perhaps think too little of our duties and perhaps of the rights of others. There have been traces of violence during these very tense times, so that is obviously something we need to address very quickly. The government has been clear that it fully support democratic development and freedom of expression, but everything has to be within the law. The rule of law is a key part of democracy and that is the biggest challenge …
The media can exercise their rights. Perhaps the weakness now is that the media may become more sectoral and people may just consume a particular channel or a particular newspaper that has strong leanings politically – they don’t get balanced coverage.
The Internet should be seen as an opportunity. For example, the government makes use of the internet now for ensuring transparency, we put up the whole stimulus plan on the website, for people to check up on the progress and to alert them of any problems.
Jason Tan: Prime Minister, you have spoken on health care and education, and minimum wage. But for all your efforts at policies in the broad public interest, you seem to be repudiated by the constituency that stands to benefit most from those policies. What can you do to convince them to your people-friendly agenda? Are you disenchanted with populism?
I think you have to put things in perspective from independent polls taken. I think more than 70% of the people are satisfied with what we’ve done. But, you know, it’s a very ambitious programme. We’ve been here five, six months; we’re implementing for the first time a comprehensive, free, basic education programme which covers tens and thousands of institutions; for the first time giving income support to all people over the age of 60 – we’re talking about three and a half more million people on this system. You must surely expect some problems in implementation and we do what we can to fix the problems.
But to put things in perspective, 70 to 80% of the people are very satisfied with what we do. Moving forward, and even before we implement these programmes, we have made an assessment of the fiscal burden that comes with it. We think it is a price that we can afford and should pay, and we make sure that the expenses don’t get out of hand. That way we make sure that we don’t succumb to the dangers of populism.
How pragmatic does one be in order to put into effect these policies?
I’ve been in politics almost two decades now. I’m realistic enough to recognize the limitations of what you can do and what you can’t do, and you don’t expect any policy to get 100 percent approval. You have to listen criticism, you have to adapt, but you have to stay your course. ENDS