Former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on the junta, monarchy and life in opposition

By: Arnaud Dubus - Posted on: August 18, 2016 | Current Affairs

Abhisit Vejjajiva was born in England, educated at Oxford and became one of Thailand’s youngest ever members of parliament in 1992 at the age of 27. Sixteen years later, he became prime minister. Now a highly experienced politician and the leader of the Democrat Party, he casts an eye over the political landscape in Thailand

Former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
“People want to participate in public affairs; they want to determine their own future. And they recognise that Thailand, in order to be an integral part of the global community, cannot shy away from democratic values and democratic systems.” Portrait by Francois May

As Southeast Asia Globe waits outside a meeting room at the Democrat Party headquarters in northern Bangkok, a relaxed Abhisit Vejjajiva jumps out of his car, bowing with palms pressed together in a show of respect to a golden statue of Phra Mae Thorani – the earth goddess and symbol of the party – before running up the stairs as if doing his morning exercise. He extends a friendly hand and enquires with a broad smile: “How are you since last time?”

Abhisit became Thailand’s youngest prime minister in six decades when he took the position at 44 years old in December 2008. Now aged 51, he appears much more self-confident than when I interviewed him in early 2009. Abhisit is very much a seasoned politician, who has experienced several coups, faced massive street demonstrations during his 2008-2011 premiership and is now dealing with an entrenched military junta that does not appear inclined to relinquish its power.

An Oxford-trained economist, he was elevated to the top job after Somchai Wongsawat, the brother-in-law of his arch-nemesis, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was removed from office. Abhisit led the country as so-called ‘Redshirts’ – supporters of the Shinawatra political clan – staged anti-government demonstrations between March and May 2010. More than 90 people died in the subsequent military repression of the protests.

After losing the July 2011 election to Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, Abhisit returned to a life in opposition. When his political companion, former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, began to organise massive street demonstrations against Yingluck’s government under the aegis of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee at the end of 2013, Abhisit did not actively participate, but he did not disavow them either. After six months of protests marked by sporadic violence on both sides, the military, led by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, seized power on 22 May 2014 and installed a junta called the National Council for Peace and Order.

After keeping relatively silent amidst an atmosphere of restrictions on political and individual freedoms, Abhisit has become increasingly critical of the junta in recent months. Here, the former Thai PM gives his views on the current political situation.

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Abhisit Vejjajiva and Hun Sen
Abhisit Vejjajiva (left) shares a laugh with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) at a ceremony in 2009 to return ancient Cambodian artefacts that had been smuggled into Thailand. Photo: Tang Chiin Sothy/AFP

If we look at Thai history since the 1930s, the country has been quite unstable. It is an endless cycle of elections-corruption-coups. What is wrong?

I think there has been a long struggle for the Thai political system to undergo democratic development. I wouldn’t say that there has been no progress. Over the decades we have had some form of democracy, some democratic roots have been growing. People are much more aware of the rights they should have.

The problem and the struggle we have had is that at one point we thought that we had got out of the cycle, especially around the 1990s and early 2000s, where we had a very progressive constitution, even by global standards. But then, we were faced with abuses by elected governments themselves, and the attempts to provide checks and balances – through the parliamentary system, through the courts, through the so-called independent organisations that we created – were not as successful as they should have been. And eventually with the abuses came the protests. Politics became very polarised. There were a lot of violent events that took place. That basically allowed the military to step in under the reason of wanting to preserve stability or order or security.

I think the biggest challenge down the path is: ‘Have we learnt the lessons, have we created a better system that will prevent the kind of abuses that led to violence and polarisation?’ If we can handle that issue, I think Thailand still has a chance to break out of the cycle.

If we look at other countries, for example Indonesia, Suharto’s 32-year authoritarian regime suddenly fell in 1998, and since then there has been regular progress on the democratic path. But Thailand is stuck in this cycle. Samuel Huntington wrote that stable dictatorships give way to stable democracies, but unstable authoritarian regimes give way to unstable semi-democratic regimes. Would you agree?

My own belief is that, throughout the region, we will move towards greater democratisation. But the pace and the smoothness of this path will differ. Even in countries that we don’t see as politically unstable, as in Singapore, eventually the system will open up to a more truly multiparty system than it currently is. And we see the one-party system being challenged in Malaysia, in Cambodia in recent years and, of course, [there is] the case of Burma making progress back to democracy. The cases where there has been progress in recent decades are the Philippines and Indonesia. In both cases it was the successful overthrowing of corrupt regimes that opened the way to democratic progress.

The point is that the ability to retain a stable democracy hangs very much on the quality of leaders. And I think Indonesia has been very successful in the sense that the previous three elections have given them leaders who basically stick to democratic principles. The Philippines turned around; you have to credit the outgoing president because he was serious about corruption. But already there are question marks about the new president. If he does not respect basic democratic principles, there is the possibility that instability will happen.

Thailand is currently in the middle of a very important and difficult transition. In your view, what are the elements of this transition at the social, political and economic levels?

Thailand’s economy and society, as with many others in the world, has evolved. It has reached the limits of the old model of success. Economically, we can no longer rely on the fact that we have abundant resources, that we have cheap labour and generally a regime of basically free trade. So we see that economically we are caught in the so-called middle-income trap. And in order to revive the dynamism of the Thai economy, you need new structure, you need new thinking.

Abhisit visiting Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in hospital
Abhisit visiting Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in hospital for talks in 2010. Photo: EPA/Royal Household Bureau Handout

We are also moving very quickly towards an ageing society and becoming much more urban very quickly. This requires structural changes politically and in terms of policies to address these challenges.

That is why my top concern now is that it seems we are still obsessed with the details of the constitution, with the electoral system, with the shape of the Senate. And it looks like we will be arguing about this for many more years, when all these years should be spent looking at the bigger picture, the issues that really matter to people’s lives in terms of how you can tackle poverty, how you can assist the ordinary people that have not benefitted from the tremendous economic growth of this country and integrate them into the newly structured economy.

Obviously, to make reforms you need to have a vision, but the military seems to be very much stuck in the past. They do not seem to be turned toward the future of the country.

I think that apart from the fact there is conservatism in their thinking, the problem is that you cannot really implement reforms and changes unless you engage people. And they are too afraid to allow widespread engagement. You see it even in the case of the referendum on the constitution, where they are so obsessed by the possible instability from just campaigning. And clearly if you want reform to be implemented, you have to have an understanding among the public at large. You have to have different ideas, you have to have exchanges, and then you have to set a common vision that people want to pursue.

The monarchy is a sensitive issue, but it is also part of this transition. How do you articulate the issue of the monarchy and the succession in the context of the overall transition?

The important thing, I think, is that we have clear rules in the constitution and the law [for succession], and they should be followed. Secondly, His Majesty has proved, and has said time and again, that the monarchy, despite its moral authority, does not put itself above the rules, the law and the constitution. So, this process should allow the succession, when it happens, to be manageable. Now, in terms of the leadership that has been provided by His Majesty, it is like any other country or any other organisation – when you have had a very inspirational leader who becomes almost the soul of the nation for seven decades, there is no way you can expect a successor to carry on with that leadership.

And I think we should remember that when His Majesty came to the throne, as a very young man at the time, the kind of authority that the monarchy has now was not there. And in fact the institution was also being challenged. But His Majesty, through his work and devotion to the people, has built up the kind of authority that we see now for the institution. So I guess his successor will be faced with the same situation, faced with the challenge [of] doing the same.