Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Reforming Thailand's Politics: an evening at the FCCT

The FCCT event was entitled "Reforming Thailand's Politics".

Before the night started, I overheard a discussion involving a colleague of Jonathon Head and discussing the recent charges against him. As it was personal, I will not discuss the conversation but it made me feel very sad for a number of reasons.

The night started with JH introducing the speakers:

- Kasit Piromya, former Ambassador to Washington and Tokyo, and now a supporter of the People's Alliance for Democracy. Also a Democrat shadow cabinet minister.

- Korn Chatikavanij, Deputy Leader of the Democrat Party

- Chris Baker, author and lecturer on Thai politics

JH invited each speaker to discuss their views on the PAD and the proposals for new Thai politics.

(My usual disclaimer and a note: I am not a journalist, I can't do freehand. For the sake of clarity I have paraphrased and edited out less interesting parts of the discussions. Also note that tonight's forum was particularly unfocused and verbose at times from both the speaker's and the questioner's sides. If speakers seem to jump from topic to topic and be a little disjointed, it's not just my editing to blame, that's how it happened)

Kasit: "I'm impressed that so many Americans are here supporting democracy. After all, their own government can design a totally fake war and keep it going while their economy collapses as their regulators look the other way." (Murmurs from the audience).

"We would like to see a Thai model based on the Finnish model of politics or even the Chinese or South Korean models. The Democrats are the closest we have in Thailand."

"New politics is coming to Thailand and everyone should be represented, including hill tribes, disabled people, poor people and others."

"Some of our ideas for new politics include the concept that anyone can take a complaint to court without having to go through police or other civil servants. There should be complete press freedom in a similar style to the German model, however the monarchy is above politics and should never be discussed negatively."

[How can he advocate both 'total' press freedom and having a monarchy above politics?]

"Police chiefs should be regionally elected and under the jurisdiction of a local governor.The Ministry of Interior would be downsized. De-centralisation would be made more powerful under new politics."

"All parties and their candidates must sign a code of conduct agreement. They must promise their candidates try to control local mafia bosses and serve the people. Any breech of the COC would result in automatic disqualification for the candidate without the need to wait for a court decision."

Korn Chatikavanij: "
The Democrats have come under pressure especially here [at the FCCT] for allegedly not being vocally opposed to the coup. Some people have suggested that the PAD are undemocratic purely because they took Government House. I think this view is narrow minded."

"I believe there is a consensus that change is needed in Thai politics.. The PAD's 70/30 proposals [that politicians should be 70% selected by an official body and 30% elected by popular vote] seemed unpopular, now they have a 50/50 proposal, I wouldn't necessarily oppose this."

"My party want both the lower and upper houses to be one hundred percent elected. I personally oppose this. If both houses are fully elected, you will get the same type of people in both houses. Often they will be related, literally. I would like the upper house to be scrapped. I understand there is debate on this in the UK, and nobody accuses them of being undemocratic."

[I think he's
referring to a debate on upper house reform in the UK, I'm not aware of any debate for upper house abolishment, which would be a terrible idea].

Compromises on the electoral system can happen and don't have to be undemocratic, it could help democracy by pushing a free press, etc."

Chris Baker: "Kasit makes 'new Politics' seem so exciting,but I want to know: how do we establish the legitimacy of all this? Moves such as scrapping the MOI are big moves, how do we give authority to such a move?"

"The other speakers talk of a consensus, we all know there are very few consensuses in Thailand right now. The opposition against 'one man one vote' (OMOV) is nothing new, it is an old idea. We should also be careful when discussing 'middle class' , it is hard to define 'middle class' in Thailand.

"These days, people are more politically educated thanks to moves by the Chuan government and TV. "

[I disagree with him there]

"Some people either don't understand or fear the growth of a mass electorate. Vote buying does not explain why people get elected. People do consider the candidate. Buying politicians is a far bigger problem than buying votes, and Thaksin massively increased the budget for buying politicians."

"A genuine crises is coming. In the past we had The Democrats as a reasonably liberal party on one side, on the other side we had the old 'godfather' parties. There was a real difference in ideology. Then came Thaksin with a philosophy of 'me as leader and no need for human rights , democracy or opposition' etc. This idea did have some appeal. The Democrats' response to this new philosophy is to support a group that - however much they talk of democracy - really boil down to hitting people with golf clubs. I think that is sad."

Kasit responds: "
As a democrat, I feel the change in political culture is a moral response to Thaksin and his methods. I have been talking to many people about this. I note 60 - 70% of PAD activists are women. This could be because they have a more moral grounding against behaviour such as that of Chalerm Yobramrung and Samak's verbal abuses. This is about morality."

JH -
Korn, why can't Democrats get more votes in the north east?

Korn - "I could talk about that all day. Northerners are less politically active and money politics is more prevalent there, and we have less money than the PPP. However I agree with Chris, money is the price you pay to play the game but it doesn't decide if you win or lose. In some areas
Puea Pandin outspend PPP by three to one and still lose. "

"Our predicament is this: do we leave the system as it is and hope that it will improve and evolve as many people believe [including me] or do we reform it? I'm a pragmatist, I support the later idea but I don't support removing anyone's vote." (Whoever said you did, Korn?)

Floor opens for questions.

Question 1
- (Pravit, The Nation):

Why did the PAD make the 70/30 proposal? Second question - could Kasit be accused of being a Democrat proxy or nominee for the PAD?

70/30 idea was floated simply to get a reaction and spark debate. I've always been open about my dual roles. I never mention The Democrats when I'm with PAD.

I used to be Thaksin's ambassador in Tokyo. During that time many Japanese companies complained to me about corruption at
Suvarnabhumi Airport. I sent many letters to Thaksin but they were all ignored.

That's why I fell out of friendship with him and joined the PAD.

Question two - Chris Baker, do you think The Democrats have not been firm enough about their democratic values during the political upheaval?

Chris - I agree, I don't like people suggesting the Chinese government has a 'democratic model'.

Korn responds: We will not back away from OMOV. The reason why so many Democrat supporters also support the PAD is due to frustration. they have tried to stick with Democrats and get reform but they cannot. So they take to the streets to make their point more directly. We ourselves are still here, supporting democracy.

Question three - What are your thoughts on north eastern politics, especially in relation to Udon [Thani]?

Kasit - The incident [of fighting between pro government and pro PAD factions] at Udon was not from real Udon people. The [pro government] people came from Bangkok and were trained near a military base. They were paid.

Question four - I was shocked to see Chamlong suggest disenfranchising seventy percent of the people that he fought so hard to protect in 1992. I want to suggest a more powerful senate with regional representatives that can control the government's budget.

Korn - But how can you complain about disenfranchisement and then support a more powerful unelected upper house?

JH - What about a more powerful elected senate?

Korn - We are discussing this. We also like the idea of an EU style regional assembly.

Question five - Chris, do you see the military as the ruling force in Thai politics for the foreseeable future? Do you believe Anupong [ the general who says there will be no coup]?

Chris - You can never rule out another coup, but right now the army are at a low point due to their poor government. They have low political capital right now so there should be no more coups at least for now.

JH- Kasit, do you support the PAD's call for more military involvement in politics?

Kasit - The military believe themselves to be guardians of democracy and Thai values. We can't reconcile that with true democracy, though.

Question six - [introduces herself as a "trained lawyer". Why is it that whenever someone introduces themselves as a 'trained lawyer' or something similar, my BS detector starts going off?]

I can't accept the criticism of the US made earlier, the PAD have timed major events to coincide with SET crashes. Why are they working outside the system?

Kasit - We don't have the sophistication to work in tune with the SET, only Sonthi worries about the SET.

follow up - Concerning your idea every complaint can go to court, how do you legitimise this? Wouldn't the court get clogged up?

Kasit - It's just an idea at this stage. People feel helpless because true complaints are purposely blocked by bureaucracy. People feel angry and hurt.

Question seven: (Andrew Burke) You have discussed making politicians up from professional associations, etc. how would you choose them?

Kasit - We are undecided. It could depend on how much tax they pay, for example. (gasps from the audience)

follow up - So you are saying the richer people get to choose more politicians?

Kasit - It's just an idea, we need to do more research

follow up - But you have so many ideas, don't you need to explain some of them?

Kasit - In time we will, now they are just proposals.

Question eight - (Mirakim, North Korean reporter for South Korea.)

[She starts with a strange set of comments including the statement: "There are only three countries in the world without a constitution - UK, Israel and New Zealand" which is totally wrong]

Can we get Thaksin back to court in Thailand?

Kasit - The government are scared to do so, Somchai is his brother in law. To extradite, we need to send an official letter to the UK. This letter has not been sent.

There are further questions but I'm tired out. The night was interesting, if uninspiring. All parties seemed slightly unfocused. Kasit had some nice ideas but no substance behind them, Chris took a role as "critique" of the other two so couldn't offer a lot things we hadn't heard before, but I was particularly unimpressed with Korn. Not only did he have little to offer but his duplicity was remarkable. Throughout the night he displayed clear support for the PAD and their proposals, but also tried to walk the Democrat's official line without ever being honest about where he stood.

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