Exclusive: ‘This is not the last straw for Thai democracy’ – Suranand Vejjajiva

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 15, 2011

This is part two of Siam Voices’ exclusive interview with Suranand Vejjajiva, former Cabinet Minister under Thaksin Shinawatra, now a politicial columnist for the Bangkok Post and host of “The Commentator” on VoiceTV.

In this second installment, Suranand talks to Saksith Saiyasombut about a wide range of topics, including the fate of the red shirts, the future of the Democrat Party, our education crisis, the state of the media and Thaksin. For part one, click here.

Suranand Vejjajiva

Saksith Saiyasombut: Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law, has been blamed to be partly responsible that Thailand has been downgraded by several media freedom watchdogs as for it‘s decreasing freedom of speech. Do you think a Pheu Thai government is capable to improve on this?

Suranand Vejjajiva: Oh yes, if they‘re willing to. The Democrat Party could have done it, too. The enforcement of that law, that it leaves to individual judgement, is problematic. A policeman can interpret the law differently. What the outgoing government has done is to string this law together with the Computer Crimes Act (CCA), all for political purposes. I don‘t agree with this development at all – let everyone speak their mind! To answer your question: Pheu Thai would definitely get into trouble, there‘ll be people attacking them…

…if they would tweak Article 122 or its application. But there are also other aspects they could improve on…

…they could improve the Computer Crimes Act. A lot of groups have been proposing for a change.

Exactly, even though the MICT has proposed a new draft of the CCA, which was even worse – which hasn‘t materialized yet…

…luckily…

Let‘s talk about the red shirt movement, what will happen to them now?

It‘s a good sign that the red shirt leaders are running for office and they should perform their duties as such. But the red shirts as a movement is a political phenomenon that should be studied and they should keep it up, they should improve and reform – make it a mature political movement and they will be an important political force, if they believe in protecting democracy. They have to prove themselves, too. A lot of people are accusing them for being just a vehicle for Thaksin to come back to power. Now, if they prove themselves to be just that and forget the people, then they will suffer. I don‘t wish to see that – the same can be said even for the yellow shirts! If they would have developed into a real political movement – fine!

Is it – for the lack of a better word – ‘appropriate’ if any of the red leaders-now-elected-MPs would get a cabinet post?

 

It‘s all political negotiation. For me personally, I don‘t mind because they would have to prove themselves and as long as they do not use their new power to intervene with their own cases, that‘s fine.

What about the new opposition, the Democrat Party…

…the new opposition with the old leaders? (laughs)

Well, will there be the old leaders or will there be new faces taking over, since Abhisit is now a burnt commodity?

It‘s quite a shame, but at the same Abhisit would be a liability to the Democrats for now. He‘s still very young and there‘re still ways to vindicate him – but with the 91 deaths hanging over his government, it‘s going to be hard. It‘s going to be a liability if he is still the opposition leader. The Democrats probably need a new face. But if they can‘t find one – Abhisit is still one of the strongest candidate on this side of the aisle, he has been protecting the conservatives and the establishment.

So if it‘s not going to be Abhisit, he thinks it should be someone from his fraction like (outgoing finance minister) Korn Chatikavanij or (former Bangkok governor) Apirak Kosayodhin – they have to work it out among themselves.

So it would be best to have a fresh new start with new faces?

Looking from Pheu Thai‘s point of view, it would be good if Abhisit stays! (laughs)

Speaking of new faces, how do you explain that Chuwit Kalomvisit‘s Rak Prathet Thai Party could get four seats? Was this a protest movement?

Yes, you have to give him credit. He is very energetic, he could get his message across – even though he looks crazy sometimes. And his message is easy and direct. But at the same time, a lot of people were thinking to „Vote No“, but once the PAD took that position, many people were thinking ,What am I going to do with my protest vote?‘ – they gave it to Chuwit.

Especially a lot of young people…

…especially a lot of young people who are bored of politics! Which happens in a lot of countries!

But at least in other countries there‘s a vocal part of the youth who are standing up against wrongdoings…

…and they are more organized…

but here in Thailand, they are virtually invisible!

It‘ because of our weak education. The political consciousness and democratic principles need to be taught in school. Thai schools are still very authoritative and not bold enough to open up to let their students talk and speak [their mind]. It‘s not like the Western schools, it‘s a cultural thing that you have to develop. It hurts in a way, it makes the institutions weak, bad politicians can still remain in office – people basically don‘t really care!

Despite the fact the outgoing government has thrown more money at the problem, there are now more and more international reports indicating that the Thai education system is producing not very skilled labors and also in English proficiency we are falling behind. And then comes Pheu Thai and their most memorable education policy is „Free tablet PCs for all“…

In my opinion, giving out free tablet PCs is still better than just giving out free uniforms. Because at least the tablet PC can – if done right – open up access to information for the students, and it would also solve other problems, like printing frauds. But I agree with you, it‘s deeper than that!

It doesn‘t take gadgets to solve this problem, which are more fundamental…

…it‘s the fundamental attitude of the Ministry of Education towards education!

I‘m not very convinced there will be much change by the next government.

No, which will hurt us even more. It‘ll take a decade, it would take two or three generations to change the education system, but you have to begin somewhere. And I agree with you, if they don‘t do it now…

…we will have another lost generation?

Yes.

A weak society needs a strong media to at least uphold the pillars of society, but we don’t have that as well.

We don‘t! As seen in many foreign countries, a strong public television system really helps a society to develop – we don‘t have it here. We tried to do it a lot of times, but that was no real public service television.

What I‘m trying to say is, I see a direct correlation between weak education and weak media. So there’s less of a sense to challenge, criticize and openly question things that are needed to be addressed.

Well, we were just talking about the campaign. If we were in the United States or Germany, a good 90 per cent of the Thai campaign policies would have been shot down by the press, because they would been well researched with reports, graphics; arguing wether this is feasible – but you don‘t see that in Thai press, they would just ask that academic, then this academic and that‘s it! Just soundbites!

British academic Duncan McCargo wrote a book about the Thai press (“Politics & the Press in Thailand: Media Machinations“), which is 10 years old, his research is 15 years old…

…and it‘s still valid – unfortunately!

He says, among many other things, that the Thai media mostly lacks a „sense of duty to explain the political process“. Can there be change as well, even in these very solid, top-down structures?

I hope so, there are a lot of good publishing houses and newspapers. But you don‘t see any quality papers á la New York Times or you don‘t see an investigative television show. I hope the young generation will be able to use the internet more wisely. But we don‘t have a strong enough education system to create an opportunity for them to question the information they are getting, then they will be fooled like everyone else.

Getting back to politics: will this transition of power be smooth?

For the sake of the country, I‘d like to see that. Whether Pheu Thai is good or bad – give them a chance to run the country, at best for four years. If they have done well, re-elect them; if not, throw them out of the office! That‘s the simple democratic principle.

But to answer your question: I doubt it, there‘ll be a lot of challenges. Now, if the challenges come within the parliamentary system, fine. But if it‘s not, then there will be trouble.

Is this one of the reasons why there‘ll be an intervention from an undemocratic force or is it still too early to say?

It‘s too early to say! The advantage for us right now is, after the recent events in the world, like the Arab Spring, are cautionary tales for people who try to exercise power outside the framework of democracy. But I also think that Pheu Thai‘s action in government will be important: appoint good and capable cabinet ministers, prove themselves that they are fair and transparent, no corruption cases – this would help. But if they come in and do the same thing – what I‘m scared of is that people will lose faith in democracy.

Haven‘t many people already lost their faith in the current democratic system, especially the youth?

Yes, even some of the rural people – there was a whole village that didn‘t come out to vote at all! But at the same time I think it‘s not the last straw! But if the next government does the same mistakes the Democrats did and disappoint the people, then the military would see this as an excuse to say: “Let‘s get in!” But that‘s not the solution!

Of course there‘s a dark, shadowy figure looming around this whole political crisis, it‘s of course Thaksin. Do you think Thaksin should have kept his mouth shut in the last few months?

I don‘t mind. If he feels he‘s been treated unfairly, let him say so. People talk a lot in this country. But whatever he says, he has to live with the consequences, like everyone else.

But nevertheless Yingluck got a big boost, because she‘s Thaksin‘s sister.

 

Yes! Thaksin is both an asset and a liability. He‘s certainly an asset – his vision, his connections, his networks, his charisma…

…his ego…

…I mean, he has the drive, to put it that way. But on the other hand he is a liability because he has so many political enemies.

The question many are asking is if Yingluck can stand on her own as a PM.

That is going to be important for the country. Yes, she is Thaksin‘s sister, she can‘t deny that. And in reality Thaksin is helping out a lot. But in a short period of time, she has been a successful campaigner. Now she has to prove, in an even shorter period time, that she can run the country. We have to give her that chance.

Will this government, and the red shirt movement as well, be capable and willing to move beyond Thaksin?

This is what they have to sit down and talk about.

Is this country able to?

Oh yes, definitely! There will be a day, where Thaksin is too old and you have to move on.

Will he come back?

I think so. He should come home, but to power? That‘s going to be another problem.

Khun Suranand, thank you very much!

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