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Thailand: Moving Toward A More Sustainable and Democratic Future

Surayud Chulanont (babasteve/flickr)

Surayud Chulanont (babasteve/flickr)

Keynote Address by General Surayud Chulanont (Ret.), Prime Minister of Thailand

Asia Society, New York City
September 26, 2007

Madame Vishakha Desai, President of the Asia Society,
Ms. Lulu Wang, Trustee-elect of the Asia Society,
Distinguished guests, ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to be here this afternoon. I think what we normally say is that there's no free lunch. Today I think it is my great honor to address the distinguished members and guests of the Asia Society today. As you are all friends of Thailand, or at least friends of Asia, I must say I feel quite at home. At the very least, I know that here, if I say I am Thai, no one will ask what I think about reunification with the mainland!

This confusion is perhaps not too surprising. After all, these days most people learn about world affairs through bite-sized video chunks on cable news. The need for speed in this day and age often means we sacrifice depth for instant analysis, and understanding for easy formulas.

Over the past year, much has been written in the Western press about Thailand. Most of it has been based one simple premise: military coup overthrows popular elected prime minister. And that premise conjures up all sorts of stereotypes—about the military, elected political leaders,and democracy.

Stereotypes are handy things. They allow us to judge based on very little information. But as those of you who are area specialists know, if you want to really understand something, you need to go beyond generalities. Today I would like to share with you what Thailand has been doing this past year to make our democracy and our development more sustainable.

Let me start with where we stand today. Thailand has a new Constitution that was approved by a majority of voters on August 19th, in the first-ever national referendum. That gave the green light fo relection preparations to proceed. My Government has set the election date on the 23rd of December. As we speak, political parties are gearing up and preparing their election campaigns, just like in the US. The economy is picking up; business confidence is also up. The public, in general, is eager to move on.

The key question, of course, is this: will the elections usher in a period of sustained democracy, or will it lead to another political cycle of corruption, culminating in another military intervention?

As a retired professional soldier, I can say to you in all frankness that I have no taste for politics, and the Thai military as a whole shares this sentiment.

The past year has thus been a time-out in Thailand's democratic evolution. It has been a time to take stock, review what went wrong, adjust our strategy and resume our efforts.

The Thai people have always desired democracy. They have fought for it and they have died for it. The desire for democracy has taken deep root in Thailand. But we have not paid enough attention to the conditions for democracy to be sustainable. Thailand's constitutiona lrule began 75 years ago. Yet our democratic development has been uneven. When the previous government was elected to power with a commanding majority, many Thais had high hopes. Unfortunately, the axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely proved correct once again.

Still, despite all the missteps, all the stops and starts, Thailand has always returned to the path of democracy. And after every ordeal, democracy has always emerged stronger.

That is what we have to look forward to. To be sure, much needs to be done to further strengthen democracy and make it sustainable. And I think we have made a good start. The new Constitution aims to strengthen democracy where it counts most—accountability, rule of law, respect for civil and human rights, and public participation. It encourages ethics, transparency and predictability in policy processes.

Some have criticized the new charter as less perfect than the previous one, the so-called "People's Charter" of 1997. But the future will decide. To avoid the mistakes of the past, to make democracy sustainable, we must put what we have learned into practice. We know we must do away with money politics. We know we must promote good governance. We know we must create a political culture driven by public service rather than greed. These are challenges that cannot be resolved overnight, or even in one year. What my Government has done is try to lay a foundation upon which future governments can build.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen—another aspect of Thailand that must be made sustainable is our economic development. For the past several decades, Thailand has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world. That growth, however, came at a high cost. As the income gap between rich and poor widened, as the environment declined, as families and communities broke up, we realized that what we needed was quality growth, growth that is sustainable, inclusive, and human-centered.

For guidance, we have looked to the sufficiency economy philosophy of His Majesty the King. Since ascending to the throne over 60 years ago, His Majesty has travelled to every corner of the country, learning about his people and the problems they faced daily. He distilled what he learned into a philosophy that, if practiced, would foster inner peace and sustainable development. But the country only took notice when the Asian economic crisis struck in 1997. Since then, sufficiency economy virtues such as moderation, rationality, mindfulness and strengthening one's inner resilience have come to be recognized as compatible with such post-crisis concerns as good governance, sustainable development and risk management. Indeed, the solid business performance of many of our blue-chip companies and SMEs attest to the benefits of this philosophy.