Thai PM Abhisit on Burma and Asean
Thai PM Abhisit on Burma and Asean
by Haseenah Koyakutty
Posted June 16, 2009
Haseenah Koyakutty, a freelance Southeast Asia correspondent, spoke recently with the Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Vejajjiva. The exclusive interview dealt largely with how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) should handle the junta in Myanmar in the wake of the recent trial of Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Mr. Abhisit is the current chairman of Asean, which advocates engagement with the Myanmar regime. Below are excerpts of the interview.
Ms. Koyakutty: There’s a perception out there that Asean has been ineffectual in dealing with the Myanmar issue. How concerned are you as the chairman of Asean?
Prime Minister Abhisit: I think it would be unfair to single out Asean and I think the whole international community puts in an effort and if its not succeeding, why single out Asean? On the contrary, we think that Asean has helped to facilitate possible channels and processes by which the situation there can be resolved and we’ll continue to do that. We hope that the U.N. secretary general will also play a role and we would do what we can to facilitate that.
Q: You say why single out Asean, but Asean was the one that brought Myanmar into the club, presumably you have clout and leverage over Myanmar and you’ve not been able to influence them, why is that?
Do a mind exercise … suppose we have taken the approach of isolating or alienating Myanmar even further, I doubt that that would make the situation better now, so I think it would be wrong to just say that Myanmar is now part of Asean and things are not going as well as people would like… and say that somehow that was the fault of Asean. We accept our responsibilities and we’re doing what we can.
Q: How confident are you that Ms Aung Sang Suu Kyi will be released?
It’s difficult to say. It’s difficult for anybody to say with certainty. We hope that the sentiments that we and the rest of the international community have expressed will have some bearing on how Myanmar decides to go forward because what is at stake is not just the case of Aung Sang Suu Kyi but also the acceptability of the political process as it moves forward as a whole, and clearly Myanmar has taken a lot of time and effort to draw up this roadmap [to democracy]. And I don’t see why they would not want it to succeed.
Q: And what happens if they continue to detain her? What will Asean and Thailand’s response be?
We will have to consult but clearly our stance has been and will always be that the political process in Myanmar will have to be inclusive to gain the acceptability and respectability of the international community. Otherwise, obviously, her credibility and Asean’s credibility will be affected inevitably.
Q: Thailand is a very close neighbor of Myanmar’s, and I think a lot of people in the international community are wondering how much access do you really have to the generals there?
If you recall the time when [Cyclone] Nargis struck, clearly, we had that channel, we had that access.
Q: And how have you been using that access?
Well, again, going back to Nargis, it was us who provided that channel and in the end allowed the international community to do a lot of work for the Myanmar people. So that proves the value of earning the trust of Myanmar and so we have to strike that balance, it’s not easy to do so but we are determined to do it.
Q: What can you tell us about Senior-General Than Shwe?
I don’t think I’m in a position to say much at the moment; I think what we are looking at is more the direction that Than-Shwe and the leadership of Myanmar would take and clearly, it begins with how the trial plays out and so we’ll watch that.
Q: How far reaching is Thailand’s business engagements with the regime and how has that changed under your leadership?
We’re neighbors and there is clearly an energy link but having said that, there is a lot of Western business presence in Myanmar. Again, we share a long common border and there’s a lot of border trade too, and the energy that we buy from Myanmar is the same as we buy from our neighbors. And we have to make sure that we ensure our people have enough energy and security. So I don’t think it’s particularly surprising or special and it wouldn’t in any way detract us from the goal that we would like to see Myanmar succeeding in her political transition.
Q: Do you think that’s keeping the regime afloat?
I don’t think so, I don’t think that would be the right conclusion to draw and as I say, there’s so many other businesses around and other governments also have contacts with Myanmar, I don’t think it would be the decisive factor.
Q: I think of larger concern to a lot of people is the deep-rooted authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. Why do you think it’s so hard for the military to leave politics?
Well I think, is it just the military? I see a lot of leaders around the world who find it hard to give up power.
Q: And specifically military leaders because they have the hard power?
They’re used to one system and you know making the transition is never easy. It hasn’t been easy elsewhere; it shouldn’t be surprising that it is not easy there.
Q: Now in Thailand you’re not exactly a shining example for Myanmar because you’ve had coups after coups. You’ve had silent coups, judicial coups, not-so-silent coups and colorful coups; do you think that Myanmar is going to go down that road if and when it flings its door open to a more civilianized government? And how concerned are you that Thailand isn’t exactly a model in that…
I don’t think it is accurate to try to portray some changes and coin them in terms of coup. I could do that with other democracies too. I think we should note that at least for Thailand when we did have a real coup which is extra-constitutional changes, the experience is clear: These days we return to democracy and elections as soon as possible. And that even the people who carry out the coup are very sensitive to democratic demands. They have to go through the referendum process for the Constitution for instance and they were very careful not to use extra powers even when they were in office.
Q: But American listeners are particularly curious as to why all the American training and influence in Thailand has not really had an impact if you’re still having coups after coups given that Thailand is now a very modern polity.
We’ve had democracy for over just over almost 80 years and a lot of democracies had centuries, they went through civil wars, they went through bloodshed probably worse than what we’ve seen in Thailand, so you know the process of maturity, of democracy maturing isn’t always smooth but I’m still confident that the direction and evolution of the system is such that democracy gets stronger.
Q: Can you describe to our audience what is Thailand’s brand of democracy?
We are a liberal democracy but we are a maturing and a growing democracy, and we are going through a time of growing pains.