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A Conversation with Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister, Thailand

Speaker: Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister, Thailand
Presider: Jon Meacham, Anchor, "Need To Know," Pbs; Author, "American Lion: Andrew Jackson In The White House"
September 24, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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JON MEACHAM: Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I'm Jon Meacham, and I'll be moderating today.

I'd like to welcome our Washington members who are joining us via video conference. We'll be hearing from them during the Q&A session. If you would please make sure your BlackBerrys are not on vibrate but are off entirely, we would be grateful. And we are on the record. So be mindful of that.

You all know the prime minister, who's going to begin with a few remarks, and then we will have a bit of questions and then we'll have some members' questions, as well.

So Prime Minister of Thailand -- (inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: (Applause.) President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this opportunity for me to meet with the members of the council and to share with you some thoughts on the current situation in Thailand.

Last year around this time, when I came to New York, I spoke at Columbia University on post-crisis Thailand and the prospect for building a new democratic society. Then, as now, I said that we were facing huge challenges as we try to build upon the foundations of our democracy. And I recognized that in rising up to meet these challenges, it's going to be a long and difficult process.

I should confess that at the time, I hadn't anticipated the events that took place in April and May of this year. But then, as now, as I will shortly say to you, I am still confident that Thailand has the character, the will, the determination to get through the challenges that we face and continue to build a stronger democracy for the future and for our children.

The events in April and May will have given you very disturbing images, leading, of course, to very regrettable losses of lives, but they also serve as a very powerful lesson that when you're trying to develop a democracy, there will be clashes of values, clashes of opinions, but the key thing, of course, is we have to find a way in which we can avoid violence and illegal means by which people want to attain their political ends or objectives.

After going through those difficult two months, the government is determined to embark upon a process of reform and reconciliation; not an easy job, and not one that we can find an immediate consensus. But what we have tried to do is to reach out to all parts of society and to engage them in a process that will build the right values to support our future and stronger democracy that includes the need to respect the law, good governance, accountability and transparency.

And while, of course, we cannot claim to have returned the situation to complete normalcy, the state of emergency remains in seven provinces, having been lifted in 17 already, and a few more are expected to be lifted next week or maybe the week after. But if you are in Bangkok right now, you'd hardly notice the effect of there being a state of emergency in place, and that ordinary people are not affected, and that you will feel welcome and you will see the usual smiling faces from the people of Thailand.

But as we move ahead, we know that we have to tackle a number of issues all at the same time. What I've done is to set up a number of independent commissions, headed by well-respected figures in Thailand, to deal with what I see as the main causes for the conflicts and the divisions in our society.

Of course, we have under way an investigation into what actually took place in April and May, not just a commission, an independent one that the government sets up, but also by the Human Rights Commission and the National Counter-Corruption Commission, both of which are independent bodies under the Thai constitution.

We also have a panel that will look into the issue of constitutional amendments, and that commission should make recommendations to me towards the end of October or maybe early November.

We're also engaging the media so that they go through a process of reform as well, so that the way they present information and news will retain the freedom of expression but also at the same time acting with responsibility and accountability.

But most important of all, we also have a commission, led by former Prime Minister Anan Panyarachun, to look at some of the structural issues that give rise to inequalities, which, for many, also provide one of the root causes for the division that had taken place and the violence that we had seen on the streets.

There is no way that these commissions can complete their work within the next three months, four months, but they've been instructed and they have agreed to try to present some concrete early results before the end of the year.

At the same time, the political system continues to function. In fact, only a week after the events of April and May, we managed to pass the first reading of the budget, followed by the opposition submitting a no-confidence motion, which the government survived; and at the moment, in a session that will run through the end of the year, we continue to pass significant legislations and international treaties and agreements, and also allowing the parliamentary system to fully function, with weekly question time. I do that personally, answer questions in the House on a regular basis, with the exception of this week, when I have the excuse of being here.

And we are also beginning to see more engagement and dialogue from opposition members, who at first were perhaps suspicious or maybe rejecting the idea of the reconciliation plan, but are now actually making public statements about their desire now to join the process of reconciliation, although, of course, the details and the means are still to be agreed upon.

I say this because a lot of this gets lost in the noise as the events and news is presented here. You could forever engage in debates about details of who did what, who's right, who's wrong, but the one thing that I can reassure you that I personally, having come through the political system at a very young age with conviction and belief in democracy, am absolutely confident and aware that we really are addressing the real issues that matter to the people.

And my determination to get the country through this crisis without caving in to some demands is first of all to prove that you must always put the people's interest before the interest of one person or one small group, and that you should never allow the use of force, violence or intimidation to affect political changes, which is why, all along over the last two years, I have never rejected calls for early elections.

But my conditions that I set are set for the best of the country's interest. First, during last year I felt that the country, and particularly the Thai economy, needed a bit of time to make sure that we have a strong recovery going. We've achieved that. We are now currently growing at -- well, the first half of the year saw a 10.6 percent growth in GDP. We're expecting the whole year's figure to be close to 8 percent. Unemployment is just below 1 percent, inflation at 3-1/2 (percent), exports are growing at around 30 percent per annum. And we've achieved this without upsetting our longer-term stability, with the debt-GDP ratio now stabilizing around 42, 43 percent and unlikely to peak as we had anticipated during the beginning of the crisis, that we would touch 60 percent. We now feel that it will certainly settle below 50 percent.

The second condition that I have always felt important relates to the constitution. There's a lot of misperception about the political troubles arising from somehow undemocratic process that led to the formation of the current government. That is not true. We had elections about a little over a year after the coup. All parties participated. They knew the rules of the game, which included, of course, the possibility of being disbanded if they engage in election fraud.

And that's what happened. The pro-former prime minister's party won the elections, but also were charged with election fraud and later proven by the electoral commission and subsequently by the constitutional court that ruled that they had to be disbanded. So the parliamentary composition changed.

I should add that they never won the -- an overall majority in the first place. And the majority of members of parliament decided that they've had enough of two ineffective governments that didn't deliver any results to the people and decided to switch sides, and we formed a government. And the situation that we are now in, I do not want to see a repeat, where we go to early elections and at the same time we have the same rules, and then the whole experience might be repeated. And so that would not settle any issue.

But most significant of all, I have always said that elections should only take place under peaceful and stable conditions. I don't believe in elections where there continues to be intimidation, threat of the use of force or violence against candidates or parties. And my offer to the opposition, to the red shirts, has always been that if they can prove that they will create this peaceful environment, I would be willing to return power to the people, even though I have the right to complete my term right through the beginning of 2012.

Over the last year, I made three solid offers of early elections. Each time they were rejected by the opposition and by the red shirts, which really does call into question exactly what it is that they want to achieve. But be that as it may, I know that the people who have joined the red shirt movement, the majority of them do not want to see violence, do not want to use illegal means in voicing their concerns or voicing their discontent. But unfortunately they have been exploited, exploited by some political leaders, and therefore led to the unfortunate and regrettable events of April and May this year.

But those grievances my government is determined to address in a comprehensive manner. Much talk has been made about whether we are taking care of the rural poor. I would only point to the fact that, over the last couple of years, this government has done possibly more than any other in history in trying to solve the problems of the rural poor. We put in place for the first time a comprehensive income guarantee program for farmers. And that -- we've done that successfully now for two successive crops, and the majority of farmers in the rural area are very satisfied with the fact that we have addressed an issue that's close to their hearts for the first time, which is that they have always been faced with uncertainties and risks in engaging in agriculture.

We also are moving towards a welfare society where we provide now free basic education for 15 years, improve the free health-care program, providing income support now for the elderly and also working towards legislations that would allow the majority of Thai people, who at the moment cannot enjoy any form of Social Security, to participate in a savings scheme to provide for their old age.

These and other measures which will be designed to address the structural inequality issues -- for instance, we are hoping to pass a legislation to put in place a progressive land tax and wealth tax -- is proof that this government, like most -- I should say all previous governments in Thailand, do want to address issues that really matter to ordinary people and the poor.

We believe that six more months, perhaps, of continued stability, with the work of the reform commission, with some of these policy initiatives making further progress, should be able to set the scene for a possible early election next year. But that very much depends still on how the opposition and the red shirts respond. If they would prove, as I've always maintained, that they are interested in democratic movement, peaceful assembly and rejection of any illegal activity and, of course, violent activities, then I think we should be on course to achieve a political solution to the problems that we have faced over the last two years.

We do this mindful of the fact that the government has a job: to make sure that Thailand is also well-placed in the medium and longer term. So not only are we addressing the issues of politics and the economy and trying to solve the immediate problems, but we are also engaging in a historic investment in infrastructure, over the next three years -- upgrading the transport network, road, railways and also improving water resources for the agricultural sector and upgrading our health-care centers and schools.

At the same time, we continue to attract investment, encourage the private sector, through further deregulation and liberalization, as well as increased facilitation for investors and the business community, and, of course, to be an active part of the ASEAN community that will evolve and be achieved by the year 2015. When ASEAN achieves that economic community in 2015, it will be a community of about 700 million people, with an estimated GDP of over 2 trillion U.S. dollars. And geographically, Thailand would be right at the center of the hub of the mainland part of that community.

I'm pleased that me being here today, in particular, is a result of the United States administration showing its interest in reengaging us in a big way. So I've just come from the second ASEAN leaders -- U.S.-ASEAN leaders meeting, and the first to be held, of course, in the United States. And we have also agreed on quite a comprehensive program of cooperation, ranging from security issues to the economy and also to environmental issues, with a likely focus to be on cooperation in the area of trade and education. So not only we'll be -- we'll be an active part of this ASEAN community, a dynamic and growing community, but also we'll be part of a partnership with the U.S. and our friends all over the world, particularly in East Asia, also to show our responsibilities to the global issues that matter and affect all our peoples.

I have no doubt that whatever happens after the next elections, the next administration or next government of Thailand will have learned the lessons -- painful lessons -- that we have been through over the last two to three years. All Thai people have now woken up to the fact that there are large sections of the population that had been neglected in their interests, in their demands. We are all now determined to address these issues. And I'm sure that the majority if not all of Thai people are now determined to achieve peace and stability to enable not just the economy to move forward, but to enable progress in our attempts to achieve a fairer and just society.

In all of this, I always point to the fact that I am confident that we can achieve these goals, because we have proven time and again, including through the latest crises, our resilience. Our will and determination, and our basic philosophy in believing in a dynamism and a creativity of our people, whether it's in the economic realm or otherwise, will be factors that will enable Thailand to shine through and achieve great things, which I believe we are capable of achieving. And I'm sure many of you who are familiar with Thailand will be witnesses to that potential. And I will play my part and do my best to make sure that it is achieved sooner than later.

Thank you, and sawatdee-kah. (Applause.)

MEACHAM: Thank you, Prime Minister.

In your remarks, you gave a spirited defense of your government's legitimacy. Your party is facing a judicial process. Where do you see that going? And will you be held to the same standards as your predecessor party?

ABHISIT: We will certainly be held to the same standards. And the constitutional court will have to determine whether we had violated the election law or political party law. There are two cases now in court. One is expected to be completed around November, and the second one possibly early next year. Because the case is in court, I won't go into the details. I don't want to be in contempt of the -- of the court.

All I can say is, whatever the verdict, we will respect that verdict and show an example of what a good political party should do to accept the rules of the game.

MEACHAM: We'll move along. Let's talk about the rules of the game, because in democracies those are --

ABHISIT: I should also add that the charges that are brought against the Democrat Party relate to events that took place five years ago; so not really related to this government at all.

MEACHAM: You attributed in your remarks the events of April and May -- the disturbing images, the regrettable losses of life -- to a clash of values. Can you explain what values are at war?

ABHISIT: Well, there are -- I didn't say clash of values, as such. But I've always highlighted the different perspectives the yellow and the red shirts take --

MEACHAM: Right.

ABHISIT: -- on the -- on the concept of democracy. You know, a couple of years ago, the yellow shirts were on the streets and their demand was about accountability, transparency, respect for the -- for the law from people who have power. And for the red shirts, it's about the right to determine the future through the ballot box, to have the parliamentary electoral process fully functioning. And for me, a democracy needs both sides. You don't -- you don't call a system that is totally corrupt, totally unaccountable, even though you have elections, a democracy. Likewise, good governance in itself, if it comes through authoritarian means, wouldn't be classified as democracy. So those are the two different perspectives.

If there were clashes in terms of -- I wouldn't say values, but I would say that what we saw was that there are certainly groups of people who are willing to use whatever means to achieve their political aims, political ends. And that includes violence, that includes breaking the law, that includes not respecting the rights of other people. And it is the government's job to resist these values becoming the mainstream values and allowing the political system basically to deteriorate into who could use more force or more intimidation to get their voices heard and to achieve their ends.

MEACHAM: On that point, last Sunday, a number of reds gathered in Bangkok on the fourth month of the crackdown and the fourth year of the coup. How does -- in defiance of a decree. How does the government view that?

ABHISIT: Well, it wasn't in defiance of a decree, because the decree says that you can have peaceful assembly.

MEACHAM: Peaceful assembly.

ABHISIT: And that's what took place, so no arrests. But if there were -- if they had been involved in violence, in blocking roads, in preventing people from entering and exiting buildings, then they would have been arrested. So that's one wide misconception that the decree actually forbids peaceful assembly.

MEACHAM: Okay. You spoke of the media's need for responsibility and accountability. What do you mean? One man's responsibility and accountability is another person's censorship.

ABHISIT: Well, the -- I'll give you the big picture first. Much has been said about the emergency decree, and maybe the issue of censorship itself. I can certainly challenge you to go to Thailand, watch television, read newspapers. And I can assure you that there is space for opposition, for people who disagree with the government, and much, much more space than we've seen for quite some time in recent Thai political history.

But the radio stations or satellite TV station that have been closed are different. In my tour of the mainstream media as part of the media-reform program, most of these people admit that the stations that we had closed down they wouldn't even classify as media. They're not professional journalists, but there are actually pretty much propaganda arms of a political grouping. But what's worse -- and this is why we have to take action -- is that they incite violence. I'm not sure any democracy allows broadcasts and -- of people actually giving rewards if you go and kill the prime minister or if you go and kill other people. I don't know if you allow people to say, "Hey, let's go and burn this building and that." And so that's -- it's as simple as that.

And we've got a number of publications, a number of radio stations, programs, and television programs that regularly reflect views that are contrary to the government, and that's fine, because that's part of democracy.

MEACHAM: When you think historically, where would you place your country's experience now, in terms of other countries' movements toward democracy?

ABHISIT: That's a difficult one, because I think some of the challenges are quite unique. We've had a period in the past where, clearly, political parties, democratic politicians, didn't have true power. That's not the case now. And I would say that the parliamentary system is functioning.

But we've now been faced -- certainly, during the Thaksin administration -- of new forms of abuse of power. And the coup, which was a -- what you might say an overreaction to that, created new problems; so that now we have to find that balance between how you can retain democratic forms of government, and making sure that there are good enough checks and balance to make sure that there is accountability and that you don't have to resort to extraconstitutional changes.

MEACHAM: Have you studied other national experiences for guidance?

ABHISIT: Well, we see -- it's not immediately clear that there is a case that you could use as a benchmark. But during the final years of Thaksin, we've always, as the opposition then -- actually, right from the start -- felt that the combination of authoritarianism and populism would lead to some kind of instability, like Latin America used to experience. And I think that was the case.

As I said, unfortunately, it ended in a -- in a coup d'etat and therefore created new problems.

MEACHAM: You were with the president earlier today in an ASEAN meeting. Can you tell us how you found the president and how you see the future of the ASEAN situation with the United States?

ABHISIT: Well, I've had a few meetings with the president now, because I represented ASEAN at the G-20 last year; I was also at APEC, and we had the first U.S.-ASEAN leaders' meeting last year in Singapore. This is the second one. He's a very good listener. I'm always impressed with that. He pays attention to the views expressed by all participants. And he tries to find a position that would lead to a win-win situation and always never losing sight of the -- of the final objective, whether it's achieving peace or prosperity or better relations and so on.

We're pleased that he has shown a determination to engage in the region, the Southeast Asian region. And there have been a number of very encouraging -- a series of encouraging events that support that.

But moving ahead, I think what the region is keen to see is some concrete achievements, which is why I mentioned earlier that there were discussions this afternoon about whether we should find areas where we should focus on. And education and trade seem like areas where there could be some quick achievements that would make concrete this reengagement process.

MEACHAM: What is the most important issue in your view in the bilateral relationship with the United States?

ABHISIT: Well, I think we can continue to expand on our economic relations. And I'm pleased that the U.S. private sector continues to make further commitments, expansion plans as far as real investment is concerned. We can still do a lot more in terms of trade. We can do a lot more also to try to understand each other better. We were, frankly speaking, disappointed with reports, for instance, on the issue of human trafficking and intellectual-property rights, where I felt that this government has shown a clear commitment to try to resolve these issues. And we've passed laws and we've tried to raise the profile of these -- of these problems. So maybe, you know, even better communications might be needed to understand each other better.

In the wider picture, of course, the U.S. presence in the region is important for our security, and also that there are new areas where we hope to see greater U.S. participation. For instance, the support for green growth in the region. We've seen Japan, we've seen Korea making very clear initiatives to try to support the process in the region, and I'm sure the U.S. could do -- could do the same.

MEACHAM: There are overlapping maritime claims with the South China Sea. You are not a direct claimant, but you're an interested observer, I would imagine, would be a mild way of putting it. Talk about China through that lens. What have you learned about China and their potential role and ambitions through that experience?

ABHISIT: Specifically on the South China Seas, I think -- you're right, we're not a claimant state. We'd like to see the disputes resolved peacefully. And we think they could be done even on a bilateral level, if the parties concerned would pursue that.

But with ASEAN, and ASEAN plus -- plus China and plus other states, I think we also have a responsibility to ensure the safe passage and maritime security in a broader picture. That's how I see the division of labor, as it were, between bilateral relations and the -- and the regional grouping in resolving this problem.

And I guess when you asked, you had in mind the idea that somehow the U.S. and the -- and China saw things differently as to how these things should be resolved. What it does reflect: I think first of all that there is a recognition that, with the emergence of China as a -- as an economic superpower, inevitably China's role in other areas -- security, military, otherwise -- is going to have to grow. It doesn't in any way have to conflict with the U.S. role. I get asked all the time what happens if there is more engagement with China: Does that -- does that strain the relationship between Thailand and the U.S. and vice versa?

And I always say, look, you know, we've got two powerful friends, and we hope they get on.

MEACHAM: (Chuckles.) Very good. Thank you, sir.

We will now go to the question-and-answer session with the members. Please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, rise, state your name and affiliation. And if we could limit ourselves to one question and concision, that would be wonderful.

And yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Jamie Metzl from Asia Society. Welcome.

Your government, I know, and we all know, has done a lot to try to bridge the divide between yellow and red. And you've described a lot of the important actions that you're taking. And yet for many of us who care about Thailand and watch Thailand, it seems that the division has become deeper than even can be addressed on a policy level: that there's an emotional divide. And if you -- I know this is a very difficult question to be answered, but how can that emotional division that has made it difficult for both sides sometimes even to listen to one another -- what can be done to begin to address that gap?

ABHISIT: Well, that relates directly to the problem of the media reform that I've mentioned earlier. A number of these outlets -- radio stations or television stations -- basically create hatred. If you -- I mean, if you're -- if you understand Thai and you -- and you listen for -- you don't need -- you don't need to listen for more than maybe a quarter of an hour; you will know how they're using these media basically to create hatred. And that's what I mean when I say that we just have to learn to make sure -- we just have to make sure that our people learn to use their freedom of expression in a responsible manner. And I think that is key to the -- to the emotional issue.

And frankly speaking, when these stations do not -- are not active, the situation is generally a lot calmer. So I'm always anxious to point out that there really is need to separate out the issue of whether there is censorship or restrictions on media activities between trying to silence alternative views and between trying to stop activities that basically aim -- are aimed at creating violence.

MEACHAM: I think the question gets to even a deeper level, which is, if there's cultural coming together, then you're in much better shape than if you're going to try to codify the definition of -- again, one man's hate is another man's principled statement of fact.

ABHISIT: Well, I'm not sure about that. I think --

MEACHAM: Well, no --

ABHISIT: But you know -- no, seriously, I --

MEACHAM: It's true here.

ABHISIT: I met -- I met with the -- I met with people, say, from England, and I asked -- I asked the BBC. They didn't allow the broadcast of the IRA. They said no. Sinn Fein was all right, because that's the political wing, legitimate political party pursuing peaceful means of achieving their aim. And I'm not sure whether you would allow a special -- a special station for al Qaeda here.

So let's not go into the debates on that. But about cultural activities or joint activities, we've seen in recent times two provinces in the northeast, one province in the north bringing the yellow and red shirts together, saying yes, they will retain their differences, but they will not allow any violence to take place in their provinces, because it was affecting their tourist income, because it was affecting their local economies.

So things are coming together, but we need a period of cooling down. And we need a period where we shouldn't allow people who deliberately want to create hatred and incite violence to lead to, you know, a troublesome scenario in the political system. You have to make sure that those activities stop, temporarily, at least.

MEACHAM: Sir.

QUESTIONER: Ralph Buultjens, New York University. Prime Minister Abhisit, I was -- you spoke a great deal about reconciliation -- red shirts, yellow shirts situation in the north. I was surprised that you did not say one word about the south of Thailand, where a major uprising has been going on for several years, where the military has had a major operation and been unable to contain it, where you yourself have difficulty in going because of security reasons.

To what degree is this very major uprising, which is said to be a Muslim uprising, in the south, affecting the cohesiveness of Thailand, and to what degree do you think it is being fueled by cross-border activity from Malaysia?

ABHISIT: Well, first of all, I've never been troubled by going to the three southern-most provinces at all. I've made a few visits, and I can't recall an instance when I decided not to go because there were problems about security.

The reason I didn't talk about it is probably -- you'd probably need a separate session for this. It's a deep-rooted problem. It has historical, cultural and religious factors playing. And the government's -- the current government's approach is twofold: development and justice. And we're making a lot of progress on the former. We have quite a comprehensive plan on how to develop the three southernmost provinces, with the emphasis on a bottom-up approach. So we had the local communities holding a forum, discussing what kind of development projects they want. And the Cabinet responds by approving those projects.

So a huge amount is being invested in this, and we're beginning to see some dividends from that, whereby there is now greater trust and willingness on the part of local people now to engage with the government, with government officials. That's proceeding well.

As far as justice is concerned, the problem, first of all, is that we've had a number of past incidents, and some of those have also gone through the courts, so there's not much that we can do about those incidents. Abuses-of-power incidents continue to happen. We've set up a complaints system that is now more transparent and accountable. And the one really unfortunate incident that took place, the mass shooting at a mosque, we issued an arrest warrant. Unfortunately, the police decided not to press charges, but we're having the attorney general reviewing that. So it's going to be more difficult to build trust, to prove to local people that people who engage in that kind of violence can go with impunity.

The direction I've set is clear. We try to be less restrictive when we can. So the four districts right next to the three provinces used to have martial law in place. We lifted that. And we hope we can lift more -- in more provinces also. And I've said very clearly that I would measure the success of the government's policy by our ability to reduce troops presence in the three provinces, and also actually eventually lifting the state of emergency in those provinces as well.

How much of this is influenced outside the border and also problems with our neighbors? I think we're getting very good cooperation from the Malaysian government. Towards the end of last year, when prime minister of Malaysia paid an official visit to Thailand, I decided to take him to those provinces with me. And now we've got good cooperation on security, on intelligence, on law enforcement. And we hope also that the development process in the three provinces in Thailand will also connect up with Malaysia's ambitions to develop the northern part of her country, as well.

From what we know, the people -- you may call them separatists, or whatever -- they still see this as a -- as a local cause, rather than something that's connected up to a -- to other organizations at the regional or global level.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike) -- Global Energy Capital.

You referred to some accomplishments and developments as being lost in the noise on the domestic front. On the foreign policy front, there also have been issues which have been caught up in the noise -- specifically, Russia-Thai relations; and of course, the noise being the extradition proceedings.

In the meantime, you've had a number of very large accomplishments in terms of building positive relations with the country. Curious to hear your vision for future development in those relations, as well as any lessons learned you can offer to the United States as to your -- you know, the reason for those successes thus far.

ABHISIT: The success -- the economic success or --?

QUESTIONER: Primarily economic -- (off mike).

ABHISIT: Yes. Well, it wouldn't be fair to compare what you had to go through. I think the comparison -- the more appropriate comparison would have been to ask back in '97. And then, I think we went through a very painful period where there was a contraction of around 11 percent in GDP, and large surge in unemployment. And it took time for us to get our house in order, particularly the financial system.

I would say, actually, that you've come through the current crisis quicker than we did -- partly because you didn't pursue policies that you advised us to take at that time. (Laughter.) Through the IMF, as well. But it's good that we learned --

MEACHAM: See, democracies learn.

ABHISIT: Yeah. (Laughter.)

MEACHAM: Yeah.

ABHISIT: But the success that we achieved, I think, is -- can be attributed to -- attributed to a few factors. First of all, the resilience of Thai businesses and Thai people. And also, I felt that the way we designed our stimulus packages helped. We were very focused on having the earliest package aimed basically at putting money in people's pockets, so that we stopped the slide in consumer confidence and spending. We know that our export sector, tourism sector, we cannot do much about if the global economy was still in trouble. And so we did, you know, programs that, in its most explicit form, was just cash handouts to low-income. And after we did that about a couple of months, we saw that domestic economy was stabilized.

And at the same time, we were also focused on making sure that we don't just say no to protectionism, but actually were continuing to be proactive in getting the free-trade agreements, through ASEAN as well, done during those difficult times. So when the global economy began to pick up, you know, exports picked up very, very rapidly. And this year, that momentum was sustained by some of those agreements coming into force.

So that would be what I would share as far as the economic success is concerned.

MEACHAM: We have a question in Washington.

MODERATOR: Yes. Thanks, John. Good afternoon from Washington. We have a question from Kevin Quigley.

QUESTIONER: (Speaks in Thai.) My name is Kevin Quigley. I'm the -- with the National Peace Corps Association. And thank you for your very clear statement.

You've laid out an agenda of moving Thailand more towards a welfare society where you hope that it will assist in the peaceful resolution of some of the corrosive differences of values that have been so evident in Thai society. I think much of the world, like Thais themselves, were stunned by the violence last spring. And I'm wondering, would you talk a little bit about your strategy related to restoring Thailand's reputation in the neighborhood and internationally, because international tourism and foreign direct investment is so key to the kind of agenda that you've discussed? Thank you.

ABHISIT: Tourism is recovering, actually, faster than we had anticipated. I think we are -- we're now aiming for over 15 million tourists coming into the country this year -- which is up from last year, despite the very troublesome two months.

How we restore our reputation? Well, it has to begin at home. And the -- my insistence on stamping out any culture that -- or value that supports violence has to be the top priority, and we're working towards that. So the best thing that we can -- we can do is that, if the people who are in the red shirt movement see that when they engage in peaceful exercise, movement, they have every right to do so and they can reflect their views and express themselves, and if they would also separate themselves from the exploitation of those who want to use violence, then it will make it easier for us to get at those people who have every intention of breaking the law, by dealing with them. But if these two elements are still fused with each other, it's a tough job for the government, and our intention will be lost through, you know, distorted reports about what we want to do.

You know, I know you've come back to me several times, that it's difficult to say which is which. But for me, I think it's clear. I think it's clear. Ordinary people who joined the protest didn't want to see any violence. But there were people who were clearly out there to make sure that chaos would be created so that they could achieve their ends.

MEACHAM: It's just the -- the regulation of speech is a -- (laughs).

ABHISIT: I know. I know, it's a difficult one.

MEACHAM: Yeah.

ABHISIT: And I have, myself, admitted that we need to make some changes. We have the computer crime law, which I think is too restrictive, and we'll review that. And even in cases of lese majeste, which had been made into a controversial issue, I actually set up an advisory committee so that the law would not be too liberally interpreted and used as a political tool against our people.

MEACHAM: Ma'am.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm Minky Worden, of Human Rights Watch.

I happened also to be in Thailand, in Bangkok, Meisat (sp) and Chiang Mai during the period martial law. But I wanted to ask you --

ABHISIT: Martial law?

QUESTIONER: Yes. I wanted to ask you today about your next steps in national reconciliation, and more specifically, about your government's position in relation to the investigations, the independent investigations, that are under way by the Human Rights Commission and the commission of inquiry. And I wanted to ask particularly about CRES, the Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situation, and how is your government working to ensure that there is full communication of key information to these independent bodies? Thank you.

ABHISIT: Okay. I should say that Chiang Mai had the state of emergency lifted quite some time ago. And since then, there've been some demonstrations, political movements; but mostly peaceful, so no problems there -- again, demonstrating that we do move towards restoring normalcy by lifting the state of emergency wherever we can.

The situation in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces, as you know, we still have these incidents of bombs and also threats of use of violence, which makes it difficult for the moment for us to lift the state of emergency. And the rally last Sunday has now shown that when you engage in the peaceful demonstration, that is fine by the law.

The investigations by all the commissions are proceeding. We do not interfere with it. We would fully -- we will fully cooperate with the -- with these commissions to provide them with information that they -- that they want. It's in our interest to do so, because if we don't do it, other people will do it. And we have so far -- well, I don't -- I haven't seen or heard any complaints about the -- these commissions not being able to work or to get the necessary information that they -- that they want.

CRES is clearly having problems in communicating with Human Rights Watch. Because I read your report that was issued, I think, a couple of days ago, or yesterday, and I was surprised to learn that you mentioned things like detentions under the emergency decree, because that's no longer happening. It took place in the early post-rally stages, when these people turned themselves in and before they were charged with -- under the criminal procedures law. But now nobody's -- is detained.

And you mentioned also actually secret detentions. That's not even allowed in the emergency decree. We have to actually announce, if we use those powers, where these people will be detained. And as I said, we haven't used that power for quite some time.

Arrest warrants have to go through -- have to get approval of the courts, so it's not the CRES or the executive that could just issue arrest warrants. And again, my understanding is the -- those people who are being arrested at the moment are arrested under violations of ordinary criminal law and not the emergency decree.

MEACHAM: Prime Minister, thank you. Thanks for coming today. (Applause.)

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