Some have mistaken the sufficiency economy approach as an inward-looking one. Far from it. The importance given to the development of inner strength is exactly so that one may engage fruitfully with the outside world. Thailand is not just Bangkok.Overall living standards have improved substantially, but much of the countryside remains poor and under educated. Through His Majesty'steachings, our poor are learning to lift themselves out of poverty in away that is sustainable. The philosophy can also be usefully applied to families, communities, organizations, the country itself, and even well beyond.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen—sustainable democracy and sustainable economic development, important as they are, would be of less value if our society is not at peace. Thailand faces a delicateand volatile situation in our southern border provinces. Militants who hide behind religion and culture have killed thousands of innocents, including women, teachers and monks. Borrowing techniques of terror from elsewhere, they have apparently sought to be associated in the public's mind with international terrorism. However, from all intelligence available, we have found no such links.
To build a sustainable, harmonious society, we have tackled the problem at its roots. We recognize that the situation in the southern border provinces is not one of religious conflict or discrimination. Thais of all faiths have lived side by side for generations. Rather, the situation involves political, economic, social, and cultural issues. The overall situation has improved significantly over recent months, as we have gained more trust and cooperation from the local people.
We realize that we're facing an extremely sensitive issue. And so we work closely with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which understands the situation and appreciates our peaceful approach that relies on perseverance, rule of law, and tolerance. The Malaysian Government has also pitched in to help train and educate our young Muslims on the so-called 3 Es—education, employment, andentrepreneurship. The situation has taken decades to reach the current crisis point. We hope it will take much less time than that to resolve.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen—compounding the many challenges confronting us is the way our friends perceive us. I think by now most of them realize that my Government is earnest about creating a more sustainable, more democratic future for our country. However, there have been fears that Thailand might turn to economic nationalism and shut its door on foreign investors. That perception couldn't be farther from the truth. The proposed amendment of the Foreign Business Act, for example, was an attempt to realign the legal and practical aspects of doing business in Thailand, not to raise the entry bar for foreign business. In the long run, it should even help make doing business in Thailand a lot easier.
The fact is that the Thai economy is so deeply integrated into the international economy that it would be unimaginable for Thailand to turn inward or try to do without foreign investment. In fact, efforts to modernize many aspects of our economy are well under way. For example, the Second Financial Master Plan is expected early next year, while several mega-projects are getting the go-ahead to upgrade our infrastructure.
Indeed, our efforts need the support of our friends to fully bear fruit. And few of our friends are as close to our hearts as the United States. Thailand and the United States go back a long way as allies and partners in so many ways. Next year we will celebrate 175 years of our relations. Thai soldiers fought alongside American comrades in all the major regional wars—Korea, Vietnam. More recently, in Afghanistan and Iraq, Thailand has sent technical and medical support teams.
We appreciate the US's understanding of our political situation. I hope the US will continue to support Thailand along the reform path.
And increasingly these days, when the US deals with Thailand, you are also dealing with us as part of ASEAN. With a combined population of over 566 million and a gross GDP of about 1,173 billion US dollars, ASEAN is the most populous emerging free trade area.
In many ways ASEAN also embodies the hopes and dreams of our region. Now 40 years old, the grouping is regarded with hope as a vehicle toward sustainable development and democracy. It has embraced close rintegration and community-building in all aspects. Always outward-looking, ASEAN is becoming more cohesive and rules-based withthe drawing up of the ASEAN Charter. The progressiveness of the Charter has surprised some observers, but it shows ASEAN's growing maturity , which includes a new found willingness to address issues such as human rights. And as this year sees the United States and ASEAN celebrate 30 years of relations, we must build on this solid past to forge apartnership to address the opportunities and challenges of the future.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen— Thailand and the United States share more than a long history of friendship. They also enjoy a special partnership that has survived the test of time. The past year has been an important though trying year for Thailand and for Thai-US relations. But I am optimistic about the future. Before long, Thailand will again be back on the path of full democracy. And we shall continue to look to US support as we attempt to strengthen the substance of democracy in such areas as good governance, transparency and respect for human rights. By enhancing our resilience and strengthening relations with our most important partners, such as the United States and ASEAN, we can look forward to a future where sustainable democracy and development bring peace and hope to generations to come.
Thank you for your attention.