Exclusive: Pheu Thai should talk policies first – Suranand Vejjajiva

In this two-part interview, Saksith Saiyasombut talks to Suranand Vejjajiva, a former Cabinet Minister under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration who served as the Minister of the PM’s Office and spokesman of the Thai Rak Thai Party, until the ban of this party and 111 politicians in 2007. The cousin of the now outgoing prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Suranand is a columnist for the Bangkok Post and host of “The Commentator” on VoiceTV.

In part one we talk about Pheu Thai’s election victory and the work ahead of them, including the economy and reconciliation process and where it went wrong for the Democrat Party. In part two, we’ll look ahead at the fate of the new government, the red shirts, the Democrat Party and Thaksin Shinawatra and also at the state of education and the media in Thailand.

Suranand Vejjajiva

We had Election Day on Sunday, July 3 – then on Monday, July 4, we already have a coalition or at least an agreement to form a coalition. What this to be expected to happen so quickly?

I‘m not in the inner circle, but what I was thinking is that – since PT has 265 seats – they don‘t have a wide enough margin. They expect that some elected MPs could get disqualified [by the Election Commission], so they have already talked to smaller parties to get the margin up to 299 seats to be safe. (Note: it‘s 300 now, ed.)

Do you think this coalition is stable enough?

In terms of numbers yes, definitely. The coalition partners don‘t have any leverage to change anything much because PT already has enough seats. If PT would have fewer seats, let‘s say 220, and a coalition partner with 20 seats would come in, then they would have more leverage, then the coalition would be unstable. But number-wise, this coalition is stable.

We have now the usual claims on the ministries, but as you just said, the coalition partners don‘t have any leverage – still, I cannot imagine that they want to go out empty handed…

Oh, they will get their ministries! My first observation was along this line, too. But it‘s too early to talk about cabinet positions – the Election Commission has not even certified the MPs yet, there‘s still a lot of time. I think Pheu Thai is being pushed by the media…

…practically hyped up…

…yeah, hyped up – to talk about cabinet positions, because that‘s what the media is interested in. But I don‘t think Pheu Thai should fall for that. For example when I saw in the news today, when Khun Yingluck came out and talked about policies – that‘s what parties should talk about right now.

So what are the policies they should look at first?

It will be two-prong. The first one is reconciliation, it‘s a policy-cum-mechanism that they have to implement. They cannot say by themselves that they will do this and that, since they are a part of the conflict as well. So what Khun Yingluck is trying to propose, a neutral committee while keeping the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Dr. Kanit, is good in a way…

Even though Dr. Kanit’s panel has hardly found anything…

It‘s because the now-outgoing administration didn‘t give them anything. It‘s a paper tiger, they don‘t even get the budget they needed – let alone access to all the evidence. So if Yingluck comes in as the prime minister and opens up everything to Kanit‘s committee – that‘s one thing she has to make sure that happens.

The other thing of course is the economic situation. Not all people care for reconciliation, but a lot of them care what is going to be in their wallets and in their stomachs.

And are Pheu Thai‘s policies a real way out? For example, one of the first things they have planned is to raise the minimum wage to 300 Baht…

It’s hard to say. I have criticized nearly every party’s policies, I don‘t believe in these so-called ‘populist platforms’. Yes, Thailand still has gaps and loopholes concerning wages or the welfare system. But to give handouts from the first day will be a strain on the fiscal discipline for the government. What they should have done though, while I agree with the wage raise, is to explain what kind of structural adjustments they would do for the economy. When investors and business people see that for example the minimum wage increase is part of a larger restructuring, they might be more confident over the economy.

Let‘s take a look back for a moment. You said that you have criticized almost every party‘s policies – what made Pheu Thai stand out from anybody else?

Pheu Thai and its previous incarnations (People‘s Power Party and Thai Rak Thai) have a track record – if you look at their economic team, all former cabinet ministers – that is for me and probably for many people enough for us now to have confidence in them.

Where did it go wrong for the Democrat Party then?

On reconciliation – they were not sincere enough about it, they haven‘t provided an official explanation on what happened last year yet, we only got political rhetoric so far. And no cases have gone into the judicial process yet.

What about the economic side?

They have not been able to deal with the rising cost of living. Of course, they would say the export figures are excellent, but they are excellent because we are a food producing country. But the prices on (palm) oil, nearly all prices went up. They haven‘t been able to manage the domestic side, not even the ‘trickling down’ of these benefits towards the urban population but also to the farmers. I think that‘s why they lost the vote.

Then there was the last-ditch attempt to hold a rally at Rajaprasong, which didn‘t really help them in the end…

Well, I‘m trying to figure out the Bangkok vote, which consists of two factors: first, the Democrats control the election mechanics in Bangkok for a very long time, so they‘re better organized than Pheu Thai in Bangkok. Secondly, Abhisit was continuing to bet on the politics of fear – the fear of Thaksin, the fear of the red shirts. Abhisit was targeting the Bangkok electorate, especially the middle-class.

We have now talked about the reconciliation and economic policies of the Pheu Thai Party. What else should be on top of their list?

Foreign policy. Especially with the neighboring countries, because I think we cannot live among ourselves. The outgoing government has created very bad relations with our neighbors and that doesn‘t help because ASEAN 2015 (the planned establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community, ed.) is coming very soon. If you really want to be a real borderless ASEAN, it has to be proven on the mainland and if Thailand doesn‘t have good relations with its neighbors, it will be problematic. The border situation with Cambodia was mishandled very badly from a diplomatic standpoint – it could have resolved bi-laterally long time ago. If there were good relations, we wouldn‘t have any incidents, not even at the UN Security Council or to the International Court of Justice or the World Heritage Committee. That is embarrassing.

Part of the much-discussed reconciliation policy of Pheu Thai has been a potential amnesty plan – if there has been ever one. Is it a smart move to give everybody, convicted of political wrongdoings, amnesty? Is this how a proper reconciliation looks like?

I don‘t agree at all with that. I don‘t see that an amnesty will help anyone. You can forgive, but only after a certain process. I‘m a banned politician for only eight more months and I have never called for an amnesty. But if you absolve all these cases, including Thaksin, the terrorist accusations against red and yellow shirts, the military coup, the defamation cases – you cannot give an amnesty that way, because there are a lot of other people in jail who will call for their own amnesty as well! The best way for reconciliation is not an amnesty, but to make sure that the judicial process is fair and transparent in order to provide real justice.

But does it like it at the moment or does the judicial system need changes?

Once you say you have to reform the whole judicial process, then that‘s a big problem. For example, the government has to find a credible and socially accepted Minister of Justice first…

Now who would that be?

I don‘t know! But it‘s important this person is independent. This government has to set an example, especially for the cases that involve the red shirts and Thaksin. I don‘t think Thaksin wants an amnesty, since he himself said he didn‘t do anything wrong. But if he‘s sure that the judicial process is fair and transparent, he might be able to come back and fight his case.