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Don’t count Thai Prime Minister Abhisit out

Critics say that Abhisit Vejjajiva runs a Myanmar-style regime; here's the premier's side of the story

by Kevin Rafferty

BANGKOK — For a man who has faced seemingly endless efforts to oust him by both parliamentary ballot and by bullet, by the slippery devious machinations that are meat and drink to Thai politicians and by street protesters who took over the commercial heart of Bangkok for more than two months, Prime Minister Abhisit seems remarkably relaxed.

Right on time he walks into the sparsely decorated sitting room of his parliamentary office in Bangkok, performs a wah greeting (with hands joined), shakes hands and sits down for a 30-minute interview that stretched to 50 minutes.

He admits that “I was in danger of losing my life” during the March to May street protests by Red Shirt supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which saw Abhisit flee from his besieged own home and office to a military barracks for protection “like a lamb among lions,” as a Thai commentator put it.

But he says he never lost his nerve. “When I came in (as prime minister of a coalition government in December 2008), I knew that there were exceptional circumstances. My job was to make sure that we got through the economic crisis that was hitting the whole world and also to try to return normalcy to politics. I knew that there were and would continue to be a lot of obstacles.

“I just focus on the situation and the job at hand and try to take the country to the future. I take responsibility for the people, for the country, the tasks are too big for you to do otherwise. And if you don’t have the nerve, then you should get out.

“What we didn’t really perceive was the length to which some people would go to achieve their own ends, particularly the willingness to use violence. We know that the opposition and the former prime minister had a large following, but the extent to which they would incite violence and hatred was something uncharacteristic of the Thai character.”

The Eton and Oxford educated Abhisit shows a calm control, dealing with a range of issues in a matter of fact way, without getting excited or raising his voice, as the more mercurial Thaksin might have. He lists considerable progress that Thailand has made, particularly economically, but also lays out the considerable obstacles that lie in the way ahead.

He contends that he is prime minister legitimately after being chosen in Parliament, the appropriate way in a parliamentary democracy, and that he is keen to hold fresh elections before his term expires in December next year, but the ball is in the opposition’s court. “We would have been in the middle of an election campaign right now if the opposition had accepted my offer of a 14 November date during the protests,” he says.

Even now, he adds, it is possible that the election could be held “as early as early next year.” But he insists that the opposition must accept reconciliation terms and promise to refrain from intimidation: “It is highly undemocratic to stop other people from campaigning. I do not see that as a fair environment.”

This view of Abhisit as the upholder of free and fair democracy is not shared by critics who paint a picture of Thailand on the brink, with a government kept in place by the military and by strict censorship, that has Red Shirts hiding in every house ready to come out and re-elect Thaksin triumphantly to power if only there were an election.

2010 performance ‘a pleasant surprise’: Korn

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With understatement worthy of his British education at Winchester and Oxford, Thailand’s Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij says that Thailand’s economic performance during the first half of this year “was a pleasant surprise.” With growth at 10.5 percent, unemployment down at 1 percent, domestic demand picking up and manufacturing and exports going gangbusters, he has reason for cautious optimism.

Who would have imagined that commercial and political Bangkok was paralyzed for two months by the protesting Red Shirts? Korn notes that “in spite of the images that appeared on TV screens, the tumultuous political crisis actually had zero impact on the manufacturing process, supply chain, logistics, nothing was impacted. Obviously during the crisis there was a significant — drastic — impact on tourism. But tourism has recovered fast, and we are now back to estimating full year numbers equal to the peak of a couple of years ago of 15 million visitors.

Given this success, maybe the government should just get out of the way and let the economy run on its own? Korn doesn’t think so, replying that “government’s role was definitely important, especially the timing of the intervention in terms of its fiscal policy and stimulus.” He says the government sometimes has to point the ship of the economy in the right direction to allow the engine of private enterprise to drive it forward. Further good news is that the higher growth means that government debts will hardly increase in spite of the stimulus and remain at 43 percent of GDP.

Korn worries about “some growing pains,” including the strong baht, but notes that exports continue to grow, a lesson for China and Japan that an appreciating currency does not spell disaster.

High growth rates means that he has freedom to concentrate on combating rural poverty and inequality, particularly access to land and proper financing. “We estimate that 30 to 40 percent of Thais, if not more, are not able to borrow from within the formal financial sector, forcing them out into the really dangerous informal sector.

“(To remedy this) we have had loan-shark refinancing schemes that have proved very successful, and have been driving laws both to protect individual debtors and push state-owned banks to come up with genuine micro-finance business plans. This will help address the unequal distribution of the gains that the country has made and will lead to more stable growth and higher rates of growth in the long term.” (K.R.)

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and now an academic, accuses Abhisit from the safety of free-wheeling Singapore of “brutal crackdowns” against the Red Shirts earlier in the year, a lack of respect for human rights and a continuing campaign to eliminate opponents using lese-majeste laws and other oppressive censorship. Writing in Asia Sentinel late last month, Pavin claims Abhisit’s “Democrat Party has gradually transformed itself into something similar to the State Peace and Development Council, the governing body of the Burmese junta.”

Bustling prospering Thailand is nothing like Myanmar (Burma). Security at Parliament was careful, but hardly as Draconian as that for entry to any government building in the U.S. or Europe, where semi-strip searches have become routine.

Yes, Abhisit arrived as part of a huge 10-vehicle convoy, but only two of them were police cars and the rest were the press pack. He had to pick his slow and careful way through a throng of reporters battering him with constant questions. The prime minister is punctilious in attending Parliament, whose proceedings are broadcast to the street outside.

Many critics have forgotten that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had minimal tolerance for people who spoke out against him, treated his Cabinet as a personal rubber stamp, abused the press, not to speak of claims that he ran Thailand as an offshoot of his considerable business empire, alternatively buying or bullying opponents.

Abhisit adds: “You turn on the television or radio now, you see opposition leaders, even protest leaders, people who have been charged with terrorism, being allowed their media space — which is more than I got when I was in opposition. Any suggestion that this is a more repressive setting that what it was five years ago is nonsense.

“Today, you have a prime minister who respects the parliamentary process, allows censure motions to take place — had one immediately after the events (of the Red Shirt demonstrations) — answers questions every week in the (Parliament) house. It is completely different from those days (of Thaksin) when the prime minister almost never turned up in the house.”

Abhisit presents himself as the face of calm reason, denying that there is abuse of laws, particularly of the controversial lese-majeste that forbids slighting references to King Bhumipol Adulyadev or the royal family, but has been used and abused to stifle criticisms. The prime minister promises that “we have made it very clear that we will do all we can to assure that there will be no abuses. On the very sensitive issue of lese-majeste, we have set up a committee so that the law will not be too liberally interpreted or abused for political purposes.”

He also denies that he is a puppet of the military: “I would ask in any democratic country, if their leader’s life is threatened, would it not be the responsibility of security officials to look after them? The fact that we have been through such turbulent times, not just during my government’s time but also during my two predecessors’ without reverting to a coup also shows that the military recognizes that trying to resolve problems through a coup is unlikely to work.

“(These days) the military have to justify their budgetary requests, getting summoned by a parliamentary committee.” He adds that the government has removed martial law from some areas in the troubled Muslim areas in the south of Thailand.

Indeed, Abhisit’s supporters say that the military realized after their coup against then acting Prime Minister Thaksin four years ago that Thailand today is too complicated and sophisticated to be ruled by simple soldiers any more. Military reluctance to crack down early on the protesters allowed the Red Shirts to consolidate their rebellion on the streets of Bangkok.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij pointed out that the United Kingdom would not tolerate armed rebels taking over the area from Oxford Street to parliament or throwing blood and feces into 10 Downing Street, nor would Hong Kong permit opposition groups to take over the area Government House to Exchange Square without taking swift action to eject them.

The government last week extended the state of emergency for three months in Bangkok and 18 provinces, though ended it in five others, a decision that was met by a bomb blast in a Bangkok apartment, with some people blaming the government or military for the explosion as a plan to justify continuing repression.

The government denies it, and renewed violence is hardly in Abhisit’s interest. He clearly wants peace and a prospering economy to allow him to move to the next stage of trying to bridge the gulf between Thailand’s rich and poor. He may be accused of stealing Thaksin’s mantle of savior of the poor — though Thaksin himself borrowed the idea from another Oxford-educated Thai leader, Kukrit Pramoj, who in the mid-1970s gave special funds to poor villages.

International surveys show that Thailand has more entrepreneurs than any other country, a massive 47 percent of the population, but most of them are micro-entrepreneurs forced to set up street stalls or small projects to survive and lacking proper finance.

Abhisit and Korn have already started a series of measures to curb the powers of loan sharks and try to level the economic playing field. For the first time in our conversation Abhisit became animated, allowing himself a fluttering of one hand when he spoke of the economic challenges, “addressing the fairness issue — because if there is one legitimate grievance of the protesters it is the continuing structural inequalities. We also have to invest heavily in our long-term competitiveness, improving (education) and human resources, upgrading skills, infrastructure, green growth, technology, creativity.”

It is a demanding agenda, for which Abhisit needs peace, a prospering economy and a new mandate. Will he get it? He claims that opinion polls show his Democrats making gains in former Thaksin strongholds of the north and central regions of Thailand.

If you talk to people outside the elite circles, you get an impression that Abhisit may have a chance, if he is given time and space. One young single mother outside Bangkok said: “I did like the way that Thaksin tried to improve the basic needs of people, but there was just too much corruption that destroyed the trust. Abhisit is a smart man with a broad vision of politics and the people, but he is still surrounded by too many corrupt old politicians. He needs to win his own election.”

Meanwhile, the Thai media bubbles with stories of a kaleidoscope of wheeling and dealing of politicians, including about one of Abhisit’s deputy premiers cozying up to the opposition gin the interests of national reconciliation,” while another former key supporter of Thaksin who defected to Abhisit claims that the ousted prime minister is funding plots against Thailand. This certainly isn’t Myanmar- style politics or government.

Kevin Rafferty was editor in chief of Business Day newspaper in Thailand