Thailand: Moving Toward A More Sustainable and Democratic Future

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.

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.