Kantathi Suphamongkhon's Take

Excerpts from Thailand's foreign minister's comments to AsiaMedia and a small group of UCLA professors and students

By Amanda Natividad
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 3, 2006

'A strong feeling that there will be a coup'

I took a very interesting trip with Prime Minister Thaksin. We went to attend the ASEM [Asia-Europe Meeting], the Asia-Europe conference at the summit-level in Finland. And so on the 9th of September we started to travel together. The first stop was Tajikistan and we had the first official to Tajikistan for five hours. And then we went to Finland. What made it quite interesting for me was that it was the first time ever that I decided on an official trip that I should take my California driver's license. I had in mind that maybe if something happened I would be free to drive myself. And it did happen, and I was able to use my California driver's license in Germany. Another feeling that came to my mind was that I had a strong feeling that that was the last trip I was going to take officially. Sitting in the plane, I remember looking at the plane and thinking, "Enjoy this trip, it may be the final one."

I remember having that discussion with my colleagues who were experts in Thai politics. On the day of the coup, just a few hours before it took place, I said, you know I have a strong feeling that there will be a coup in Thailand. I'm thinking [that it will happen] in a matter of hours. And they looked at me and they were confused and in disagreement. They said, no, it wouldn't happen. Especially in Thailand, they said, when there are rumors there won't be action. And I said, well, rumors started many months ago. People are used to the rumors. And then it happened two hours after that.

We had a complex situation. We had the prime minister's trip involving Finland [Sept. 10 and 11] and then Cuba -- because Cuba was the host of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit [Sept. 11 to 19]. We had a candidate for the post of the U.N. Secretary General, [Thai] Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai. He was very eager to take the last opportunity before the U.N. [General Assembly meeting in New York last September] to interact as much as possible with members of different countries. So I told the prime minister, I think it's the last opportunity for Dr. Surakiart to campaign so he should go with the prime minister and I would join the prime minister [in New York] after my visit to France, which was an official visit.

[Thaksin] was debating because he was wondering whether he should even go to the U.N. There was a possibility that he would like to go back to Thailand earlier, after Cuba, but he did decide to go [to New York]. So on the morning of the 18th in Paris, at three in the morning, I received a call and it was him, the prime minister. He said he would be going to give a speech at the United Nations but wanted to go back to Thailand early, so he was planning to move the speech up to the 19th. And so, in that case, he said I should cancel my trip to New York and go back to meet him in Thailand. He had met the leaders of Vietnam and he wanted to set up a joint cabinet session between Thailand and Vietnam.

And so I decided to go back if that was how he felt. I was scheduled to leave Paris on the 19th. Otherwise, I would have been in New York on the day of the coup, but when it happened, it was in the afternoon in Paris. I stayed there for a few days and the situation was still unclear so I decided to see some friends in Germany and then a week later I went back [to Thailand].

I didn't have any problem [upon my return to Thailand one week after the coup]. The press came out to the airport to meet me so my return was covered on TV and the printed press and questions were asked similar to yours today, about what I wanted to do in the future.

I called the military authorities to tell them that I wanted to take a few days off in Germany and when I'd return. I told them when, the exact flight number and everything. I told them I'd be open to help if they needed whatever they would require. They said that everything is fine and no problem. So when I returned, everything went back to normal. So, it's been no problem for me.

'The nation divided'

It was a major concern to see the divided country. I have never experienced that myself to that degree, when we have a prime minister [Thaksin] who is hard working and accomplished a lot for the country but when he would go around the country there would be two different groups, one opposing him, one in favor. They would have very strong arguments. And those were the things we were very sad to see.

I saw things coming to a conclusion in several different ways. It was not a one-factor thing. It was multiple factors. The military reshuffle [in which Thaksin sought promotions for former classmates] was probably one element. The point that made it reach a very hot spot was the sale of [Thaksin's] company [Shin Corporation to the investment arm of the Singapore government, Temasek Holdings]. Legally it was his son's company but the general perception was, of course, that it was still within the family. But when he sold the company tax-free, and with other questions about whether a foreign company should own companies in [Thailand's] telecommunications sector -- those arguments led to question marks. But legally it was explained that the sales took place inside the stock market and within the stock market we don't have tax on capital gains, but nevertheless, there were different degrees of feelings and then it had a life of its own. A lot of it the momentum grew from that.

My hope was that it would be very peaceful and it turned out to be peaceful. People thought we would be hurt as far as the tourist sector was concerned, but then you had tourists taking pictures with the soldiers all smiling. It's a Thai way.

No one was injured and I hope that we can put the divisiveness that we have experienced in the last few months, this year, in the past and that we can look forward to a future of reconciliation, understanding and move the country forward. So that was what I felt was most important, now is to really look at how we can reunite and move the country forward again.

The future of the Thai Rak Thai party

I think eventually a good analysis of how the democracy process works would be very useful. You see, the Thai Rak Thai party became a party which was different from other parties because in Thai politics, before then, many political parties did not focus too much attention on the substance of the policies. What Thai Rak Thai did was look at different parties throughout the world. We looked at the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and others, and we focused on having our platform created as a result of interaction with the people. So we had a thorough study on what the people needed and we came up with policies which were proposed for approval by the voters. And we implemented them.

A lot of [the policies] also had to do with the bridging of the rich-poor gap. When we were elected for the first time, Thai Rak Thai was overwhelmingly elected to the degree we became a one-party government, first time in [Thailand's] history. Bangkok was also with us -- we were able to get votes from Bangkok to a good degree.

We wanted to help the small and medium-sized enterprises because we felt that they, entrepreneurs, needed help and a lot of them were in Bangkok. And the big companies -- we didn't feel they needed much help so we didn't emphasize the big companies. So it was a mixture. It [the divisiveness] had a life of its own eventually.

The policies were really not a problem. The problem was the psychological factor. It focused on the sales [of Shin Corporation] and it focused a lot on the prime minister as a persona. So the policy that we implemented, many of them are now being carried out by the new government.

There's a big debate whether Thailand should be part of globalization or not, and my feeling -- and many members of [Thai Rak Thai] party shared this feeling -- is that it's not if we join globalization but that we have to be able to participate well in globalization. Globalization is here with us now. We wanted to bridge the development gap. We offered opportunities; education became a priority, we offered opportunities for the poor to have their own funds, to manage their own funds and then to be creative and use their local wisdom to come up with products. And those became the village product program and village funding program.

Then we wanted to encourage entrepreneurs to succeed in this world of globalization. So we wanted to build the economy from the grassroots up. Internationally, we wanted to make Thailand a gateway and hub for Southeast Asia. We wanted to embrace free trade. Free trade meant companies in Thailand had to be competitive, and many companies did not want to be fighting so hard in the world. They wanted protection. So we had a lot of internal debates on free trade. But we pushed forward this agenda and we felt that it would encourage foreign investments.

We wanted foreign policy to open up the world for the Thais. So foreign policy took economic focus. We helped neighboring countries to bridge the development gap. We have been helping Cambodia and Laos, to lift them up too. If you looked at the GDP of Thailand plus Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, Thai GDP made up 93 percent. With that gap we had the illegal immigrants, drug problems and other problems. So we felt that we had to help them -- that's actually helping ourselves. So we've had a new thrust in foreign policies.

[Another goal was] also to work with others on other issues further away from Thailand, in which I played different roles -- even in the Korean situation. Working with the six parties behind the scenes, we became engaged with the international community on different issues that affected the world. Thailand became a constructive player and we succeeded to a good degree. That was the thrust of the policies that have all been more or less adopted by the new government.

The problem became a question of conflicted interest, the personal issue. For example, questions about the new airport, mega projects, we have to deal with that legally and be fair and look at the evidence. And that would be the way to deal with it, but the general thrust of the policy has been good for the country.

Major setbacks for Thai Rak Thai

We had over 100 resignations [in the first week after the coup], especially people who were in the leadership positions in the [Thai Rak Thai] party. I think the party has dealt with a major setback. Dr. Thaksin has resigned as the party leader -- we'll just have to see.

There's also an allegation that could lead to the party being dissolved. But that all has to be dealt with legally, not only for Thai Rak Thai, but the Democratic Party as well. Everything is hanging. But we have a good interim leader by the name of Chaturon Chaisang. He's a politician that many people trust.

I haven't made any final decision yet [about resigning from the party]. I felt that I was not going to be one of those who would rush to the door. There's no reason to rush to the door. I saw many of my colleagues rush to the door on the first day. I felt that was not me. As for the future, I will weigh things before making a decision.

The policies of the interim government

What I have seen is that now is that they will keep most of [the policies].

We had 30 baht health care -- 30 baht is a few cents that people pay to get a comprehensive medical treatment -- which was popular and they decided to carry that out and drop the 30 baht altogether. The new foreign minister has emphasized continuity in foreign affairs and so the main aspects of our foreign policy remain the same.

It so happens that in life things are quite interesting. What happened was that when I joined the Foreign Service the person who wanted me to work closely with him was the future Ambassador of Thailand to the United Nations. He made a special request when I was still a junior officer -- just joined -- for me to work with him in Thailand and then when he moved to the U.N. he asked me to go to the U.N. with him and I spent four years with him at the U.N. and then eventually when things turned around, when I became Foreign Minister, he became my adviser. Today he [Nitya Pibulsonggram] is the 40th Foreign Minister [of Thailand].

The new constitution

The old constitution was drafted as a people's constitution and when it was adopted there was a lot of optimism. People felt that Thai politics had a lot of problems because of the many political parties. It would be good to have less parties and a more focused system. But when that happened, people felt they were not ready, so they wanted to go back to encouraging more parties.

The last constitution, it went into specifics that maybe it shouldn't have. For example, the 90-day requirement for Members of Parliament (MPs) to join a party before running for elections -- many people were unhappy because they felt that if Parliament was dissolved, usually there would be a new election within 60 days and if you have to join party 90 days before no one can move to a new party -- they would be stuck with their old party, which meant that Thai Rak Thai would retain all the MPs.

Now we have new situation and the new constitution will have to be forward looking and have less details that may not be necessary for a constitution and be written in such a way that would allow the constitution to stay on for a long time into the future.

Reconciliation and His Majesty

His Majesty has played a vital role as a unifying factor throughout Thailand's recent history, so I think the people of Thailand appreciate his role. I think the general feeling in Thailand was that His Majesty the King's role has continued to be a unifying role and we hope that from now on the divisiveness we saw in society can be placed in the past and we can move forward to reconciliation. So His Majesty remains highest in the hearts of all Thai people.

In fact, yellow is the color of His Majesty. And that is because he was born on Monday and Monday in Thailand is a yellow day. So as a reflection of loyalty to his Majesty the whole population of Thailand has been wearing yellow practically every day for this past year. So you can see this sense of appreciation for what he has done. He has done so much as far as the poor people are concerned to try to lift their quality of life up. When you look at His Majesty and you look at the fact that he is the longest reigning monarch in the world -- 60 years on the throne -- His Majesty remains at the heart of the Thai nation.

We have a system in which the king is the head of state but does not get involved in the appraisals of the government. And I think what is most in his heart is the fact that reconciliation was needed in Thailand. I would leave it there, that his role has been very constructive and focused on the need for reconciliation.

'If I were to leave politics forever I would be satisfied'

I have worked so hard in the past many years. I needed a break, a long break. When I was in the Foreign Service I thought being a foreign minister was tough, but when I became foreign minister I had no free time at all. When I went home, as a trade representative, folders came to my house for me to continue to work. When I was foreign minister my housekeeper said, "God, they're coming in piles now!" Dealing with over 190 countries -- it was a relief. I worked hard so I wanted to take a break, but after [the break] I will see. Different universities have been asking me to share my experience, lectures, things like that. My family business is only real estate development -- because my grandmother was wise and bought a lot of land -- and I didn't have any time to look after the land. It's just empty plots of land. So we hope we can develop the land at this time so I can see what to do for the family.

Many different politicians try to invite me to join, but I will not make a decision. What I see for myself is that I worked hard for the country so if I were to leave politics forever I would be satisfied. But if I felt, in the future, I could play a role which could be helpful for the people I would consider that. I probably wouldn't try to get a position but if I felt that something would be useful for the country then I would reconsider.