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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

INTERVIEW:

'We must seize this crisis'
As an opportunity to reform,
says Thai PM Chuan Leekpai


The Quiet Revolution Thai politics are changing dramatically

Influence Patronage still reigns in Thailand's provinces

A WIMP, SAY SOME Thais. Our best prime minister ever, say others. The media call him clever but gutless - having earlier praised him as a savior. Thailand's lightly-built, soft-voiced Chuan Leekpai, who will be 60 next month, evokes astonishingly strong feelings. But he reacts with a grace and fortitude that would shame other leaders in the region. If there is one thing no one questions, it is that Chuan - No. 13 on Asiaweek's 1998 ranking of Asia's 50 most powerful people - is a mentally tough man of the utmost rectitude. But is he a good leader? Especially now, when Thailand is in the throes of the worst economic crisis in its history. Momentous political changes are also underway as the nation wrestles with a new Constitution and new laws that will radically reshape the face of Thai politics. Chuan spoke about these pressing issues in an interview lasting almost two hours with Asiaweek's Roger Mitton and Julian Gearing. Excerpts from their conversation:

Are you satisfied with the progress you have made to lead Thailand out of the economic crisis?

Only to a certain extent. There is greater confidence in the Thai economy. But the crisis has many follow-on impacts which are very serious - unemployment, liquidity and so on - affecting all sectors of our society. We have to recognize that there is continuing negative impact - more serious than we had expected - from the regional situation. It is a heavy task for my government.

So things will get worse?

The second and third quarters of this year will be quite serious. The situation could deteriorate and there could be bankruptcies. There will be increased unemployment. We have already told our people that. With businesses going bankrupt, we had projected 2 million people may become unemployed. Perhaps now that figure will be even greater. We have to take measures to try to lessen the burden on the people.

Will you call an early election, for a bigger mandate to tackle the crisis?

I don't think so. A lot of politicians are now publicly calling for early elections. But when they talk to me in private, they ask me not to. And when I meet people around the country, I sense there is no great pressure for elections.

But there are voices saying you are not the right man to lead Thailand out of the crisis, that you are not decisive, not fully in control.

I know there are complaints about me. And there are going to be more. We will have to withstand increased criticism because the situation is still serious.

But I do not find it difficult to make decisions. For me, no decision is great, no decision requires decisiveness, because I base myself on principles. When it is a decision between right or wrong, there is no need to waver because it is clear what to do. For some politicians, if they have a vested interest, they may have to act quickly on some things, they have to appear to be decisive because their personal business interests are involved. For me, I have no personal interest. For me, it is the whole process of governance in the interest of the country that is the most compelling task.

As for not being in control of the situation, I do not see it that way. The government continues to function. We will proceed with our reform measures. Differences of opinion are a normal part of the process. We have a coalition government of seven parties, and they all have their own views. I see this as a normal democratic situation. I am confident we are moving in the right direction, but we have to seek understanding from the Thai people that there will be a period of some hardship. The hope, the expectation, that the situation will return to normal within six months to one year is unrealistic.

How will people react?

The most important thing is to focus on the positive. Thais must seize this crisis as an opportunity to institute the reforms that have been necessary for so long, to make the country better. Thais cannot make the same mistakes. If we do, we will suffer even more.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs?

Thais are not in a position to blame anyone, any force from outside. In the past, we perhaps put too much emphasis on rights, not responsibility. Now Thais must take up the responsibility for resolving the problems of their own country.

Other problem areas are corruption and patronage politics.

Yes, in the past, elections have not been clean. We have not had a clean government or clean politicians. Our system has not been able to prevent vote-buying. When I first stood for election 30 years ago, there was no vote-buying. But later it became prevalent, particularly over the past 10 years. Officials, even military officers, used to intimidate voters. They took sides with the ruling party. When I came to office, I told these officials not to take sides. I expect them to be neutral.

As a veteran politician, are you not partly to blame for the bad old system continuing for so long?

Yes, I take some responsibility. But I have always fought against dirty politics, against vote-buying, because I have confidence in the people of my district that they cannot be bought. My strategy has been to work harder for the people than those who have come in, attempting to buy votes.

Will the system under the revised Constitution eradicate vote-buying?

I do not have that full confidence that we'll be able to prevail throughout the country. What I can do is maintain the course. To stick to my belief that people who come into office through vote-buying can never fully serve the people, because part of their time is taken up by thinking of how they can regain what they have paid out to get elected. Values in our society still reward the winner and do not look at how that victory was gained.

Can you ensure that all your own party's candidates will be clean?

I cannot guarantee that. But we will try to find the best people. When large numbers are involved, we cannot expect that everyone will live up to all our expectations. This is reality. I do not aim to achieve 100%, but I will be satisfied if I can make a significant contribution toward lessening the role of money in politics.

Thais are giving more importance to the principles of democracy. They see more clearly the close link between economics and politics, and they have called for a government that is transparent and honest. They see this as an essential ingredient for resolving economic problems. There is greater demand for politicians who are professional and competent. This is the change in our society that I see most clearly over the past few months that I have been in office. It is a change in attitude, a change in expectation.

Talking of change, what do you think about the fall of Indonesia's Suharto?

What I felt for him was respect as a leader of an important country who had been in office for a very long time. It was basically an internal decision for the Indonesian people themselves to decide.

Isn't what happened in Indonesia an indictment of ASEAN's policy of non-interference? If you had counseled Suharto to step down earlier, the violence may have been averted.

ASEAN's philosophy of non-interference is still important. It does not imply we have to agree with the government or policies in each member country. Certainly, in Thailand, we look at others from our own principles and standpoints. We have a natural tendency to wish to see them be like us. Since I come from a democratic tradition, I will never see totalitarianism as being better than democracy. At the same time, I cannot turn around and order others not to be totalitarian and become democratic.

But if you and similar ASEAN countries do not speak up and tell Myanmar and other undemocratic members to change, you might contribute to future upheavals.

Your question is very good - and I hope other countries hear it.

Going back to the recent, often vituperative criticism of you in the local media - doesn't it upset you?

Well, I am a human being. I can be affected by all this. But I regard myself as a politician mandated by the people to do a certain task. And usually the people who voted for me do not criticize me. The press never say anything good about us. That is normal. In Parliament there are many good people, but those who are bad overshadow the good. It will take time to resolve this problem. In Thai society, politics is the only profession that you can criticize and there will be no danger. Under dictatorships, the press never criticized the government. When dictators brought a lot of suffering and hardship to the nation, the journalists never criticized them because it would have been dangerous.

Yet you still decided to become a politician.

When I decided to enter politics, my professor told me: you are short-sighted, you are not looking at the long term. He told me politicians have no career, no prospects, they are not accepted by the people. He said it would be better if I became a judge. All the law graduates wanted to be judges because the pay was higher. Even my parents wanted me to be a judge. Parents do not want their children to become politicians. That is why I have problems trying to get good people to come in now. Good people are usually not crazy.

You went ahead and succeeded.

Perhaps it is the decisiveness you were asking about earlier - my resolve, despite protests, to go ahead and enter politics rather than become a judge. I have stuck by it. I have never changed my political inclination. When the Democrat Party reached rock-bottom, when many people said it was finished, I did not desert my party. Others left, not me. We lost the elections, we gained the least number of seats ever. But I won. Because the people realized that, whatever happened, I would not change.


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