Walking the talk

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Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister of Thailand, on the country's restive south, opportunities and rectifying 'policy mistakes'(this article first appeared in the 'Policy & Government' (pages 14-15) of The Edge Financial Daily on June 8, 2009)Mass protests, political horsetrading, activist judges and the monarchy: just some of the ingredients in the simmering pot of post-March 8 politics in Malaysia. But if Malaysians wring their hands in worry about the future and are already nostalgic for their moment of re-enfranchisement, the Thais, 64 million-strong, have long rolled up their sleeves to participate in their own governance.

It is tricky to draw parallels between Thailand and Malaysia as fledgling democracies, but the broad similarities in the political forces faced by their current leaders are unmistakable.

Abhisit Vejjajiva is the latest in a long procession of prime ministers in a country where there has been a profusion of military coups. The Thai constitution was only amended to reflect its status as a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Abhisit replaced Somchai Wongsawat of the People Power Party (PPP), but the shoes Abhisit has stepped into and must now change, are Thaksin Shinawatra's. Abhisit's Democratic Party, the country's oldest and out of government for eight years, came into power on the back of a parliamentary vote in December 2008, after the Thai Constitutional Court had dissolved the PPP for electoral fraud. Thaksin was ousted in 2006 in a military coup (which Abhisit opposed) and the PPP was widely regarded as Thaksin's resurrected Thai Rak Thai party. The Democratic Party now leads a coalition government.

Like Thaksin, Abhisit, 44, is of Thai-Chinese ancestry. Unlike the former, however, this clear-eyed, self-possessed realist is not given to bluster and grand gestures, CEO-style. The showmanship and fiat-making that won Thaksin fans also attracted as many critics, who observed with alarm the effects of public assets being cordoned off for private interests.

As much as Abhisit, Englishborn, 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 the legacy of Thaksinomics and other residual issues. The way the Red Shirts managed to disrupt the high-level Asean Summit in Pattaya earlier this year was indicative of a divided or at least ambivalent national security force.

On the occasion of Abhisit's first official working visit to Malaysia, the prime minister's office granted this interview in Bangkok two days before he was due to land, and not long after he returned to his country from attending the Asean Commemorative Summit in Jeju, South Korea. 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 initiated a process where reconciliation should be achieved through parliamentary committees and the participation of the people. Obviously, I am watchful of any developments that are negative, because the conflict and tensions have been ongoing 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 which is of course to make sure that regional cooperation with our neighbours moves ahead.

Q: And how long will the relationship between you and the elite powerbrokers last?A: It's not about my relationship with any particular group. My government has come through the parliamentary democratic process. What's 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.

I don't expect that there will be no more demonstrations. What I insist on 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.

Q: When can constitutional reforms be expected?A: We now have two parliamentary committees (on constitutional reform) and 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.Southern comfortQ: 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 short and long-term plans to resolve this festering problem?A: 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 has drafted a major development and investment plan for the provinces spanning over thenext two, three years. We expect the projects under it to be implemented towards the last quarter of this year. We think that will create 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.

It will take time before we see the results of these policy decisions 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 (in the southern provinces) 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 structure of a new security law which has been in place since last year.

Q: Are you visiting Malaysia primarily because of the troubles in Southern Thailand? Is the matter so pressing?A: In terms of incidents, there continues to be an improvement 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. It's certainly a top concern. We think that whatever cooperation we seek 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 (because) of people crossing the borders when there are incidents that happen. These are the things that we need to work on together.

Q: You have, I believe, promised a genuine new deal - a new understanding, respect and justice - for the people in the South. The Bangkok Post has 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?A: 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, (which) 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.

Q: In other words, you are trying to integrate the southern Thais into the mainstream of the country's development.A: Yes, (but) it's not a question of integration I think; 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.  On bilateral relations and Asean

Q: I 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 diff erent from previous summits? And we have always had strong bilateral relations, Malaysia and Thailand. Could they be warmer?A: 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 clear objectives, including on issues such as human rights. Then we can actually move forward. Now, given the diversity (of Asean) 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 times and 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. 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 a special economic development zone, and Malaysia also has a northern economic development corridor, I think there's still more room that we can explore to improve the bilateral relationship tremendously.

Tenure and democracy

Q: I am impressed that despite what seems to be your weak position, your tenure may be longer than that of your immediate four predecessors...A: 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 of 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 be1tter for the country to stay, you stay; if it's better for the country to go, you go.

Q: How many terms do you intend to serve?A: 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 (allowed by law), because we are in the process of reconciliation and reform and at some stage in the process, it would be appropriate to have elections.

Q: 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...A: 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 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. This will take place over the next three years (and) we hope to have all the plans approved and implemented in the next few months. I hope this sets 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.

Growing pains of democracy

Q: Do you seriously think the game is up for the Red Shirts?A: 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, 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.

Q: How would you describe the strength and the state of democracy in Thailand today and for the immediate future? How strong are its institutions?A: 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 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 supports 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.

Q: And 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? A: 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 of 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 in the competitiveness of the country as a whole. I think the economy in general will benefit from it.

Jason Tan: Prime Minister, you have spoken on health care, 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 them. Are you disenchanted with populism?A: 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 of thousands of institutions; for the first time giving income support to all people over the age of 60 - we're talking about 3.5 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 from independent polls, 70% to 80% of the people are very satisfied with what we do. 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.

Q: How pragmatic must one be in order to put into effect these policies?A: I've been in politics almost two decades now. I'm realistic enough to recognise the limitations of what you can do and what you can't do, and you don't expect any policy to get 100% approval. You have to listen to criticism, you have to adapt, but you have to stay your course.(this article first appeared in the 'Policy & Government' (pages 14-15) of The Edge Financial Daily on June 8, 2009)