On the morning of Saturday, 14 March 2009, the Prime Minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vejjajiva, spoke to an audience at St.John’s College Auditorium, University of Oxford.
Abhisit’s arrival was greeted by Red Shirt protesters who were waiting for him in front of St.John’s. However, most of the Red Shirts were not allowed to go inside. This is because everyone needed to reserve their place. It was Oxford students (most of them Thai), Thai students from other UK universities, and guests invited by the the Thai Embassy in London, who composed the majority of the audience.
St.John’s College Auditorium is not large. It contains fewer than 200 seats. In addition to the above audience, there were also some Oxford professors and non-Thai students who attended the talk. The auditorium was full even before the talk started. There were numbers of people who reserved seats but could not attend the talk (like this New Mandala contributor). Most of them were Thai students who helped organise the event.
Abhisit was introduced by John Hood, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and Sir Michael Scholar, President of St. John’s College. The two introduced Abhisit as Oxford’s proud alumni. Abhisit’s background as both the ex-President of Oxford Student Union and ex-President of St.John’s College Junior Common Room, was mentioned.
Abhisit started his talk by arguing that a few decades since his time at Oxford, Thailand has become well known for her flourishing development and democracy. He said, “what made me proud through the years (since he left Oxford) was Thailand becoming known as a country where democracy has taken root”. He cited the fact that media freedom was high the last time his Democrat Party was in power. However, media freedom had declined during the years when his party was not in power. He then posed the question “is Thai democracy backsliding”. He responded to this question by saying that the objective of his talk was to convince the audience that, despite the various blows Thai democracy has experienced, “Thai democracy is alive and well”.
He then reflected on the difficult route Thai democracy has taken. He argued that Thais always responded strongly to democratic setbacks. He then followed this by announcing his commitment to “doing everything in his (my) power to advance and strengthen democracy, no matter what the challenges and obstacles are along the way”.
He talked about the struggle of Thai democracy in relation to his own experiences. He said that his experience of the 14 October 1973 incident, when he was only a nine year old kid, gave him a life-long understanding of the Thais’ willingness to sacrifice their lives in fighting against tyranny; “democracy may be taken for granted elsewhere, but not for Thai people”, he argued. He also said that the 14 October incident inspired him to be a politician, as he believes that path was the only way for him to bring democracy to Thailand.
He continued by arguing that the victory of 14 October was short-lived, as three years after, it was followed by the 6 October 1976 incident, when the military was able to made a comeback to their power. He said that he spent time during those years as a student in Britain, where the experiences convinced him that democracy is “essential to every country in the world, including Thailand”.
He then jumped to reflect on his experience as a young politician during the May 1992 uprising. He argued that the 1992 uprising sparked the Thais to unite and push through the most comprehensive democratic reform in Thai history. The outcome was the 1997 Constitution, the so-called People’s Constitution. However, the 1997 Constitution’s intentions, such as the aim to build a strong executive power, underestimated the ability of elected politicians to abuse their power. The 1997 Constitution did not anticipate that “the strong parliamentary majority and executive power will undermine transparency and accountability. Sustained by populist policies, that majority came to be the basis of (the) authoritarian approach taken by the government. With such approach, came rampant corruption on a massive scale and a casual contempt to the rule of law”. He then went on to criticize the past government for the killings in the South and the drug war. He said that the only up side of that period was the empowerment, at least politically, of the rural poor through populist policies.
He followed that the tendencies of the past government caused the dissatisfaction of the people, who then went on to stage protests against the former government on the streets. These protests were followed by anxious feelings among people since the government continued to put themselves above the rule of law by holding on to their claim for a majority. He said that was the reason why when the military stage a coup in September 2006, it was met with “relief among the majority of people”. He, however, argued that the existing democracy pressured the military to promise to hold an election within one year. He cited this and the fact that the military had to subject the 2007 Constitution to a referendum as a reflection that democracy had still prevailed despite the military intervention. He then argued that, from now on, the military would be more reluctant to force their way to power again.
He said the government who came to power after the democratic election last year, however, ran into problems. This is, to him, the outcome of their (the People Power Party government) lack of respect for principles of democracy, which made political turmoil inevitable. He stated that, “in the end, after the court ruled against the government for abuse of power and electoral fraud, democratically elected parliament decided to end the deadlock, to put in change and voted in my party to power to form the coalition government”. He subsequently argued that “Today, Thailand is back on track toward democracy, and I consider it my duty to ensure that Thailand progress toward democracy continues”.
Abhisit stated his commitment to democracy, highlighting his commitment to transparency, good governance, respect for human rights, and rule of law. He argued, “We need not trade-off majority rule for transparency and good governance”. He then stated his intention to lead political reform to create long lasting liberal democracy under constitutional monarchy. Such reform shall only allow the power of a political leadership to provide national policy direction for improved quality of life. He also argued that Thai democracy must respond to people’s economic needs, stating his commitment to economic development that supports fairness and assistance to the least fortunate.
He spoke about ASEAN, arguing that Thailand’s democratic experience will be valuable to other countries. He talked about several initiatives that Thailand and other ASEAN countries are now taking to advance democratic development in the region.
He then said his famous phase that was quoted in many Thai newspapers, “I cannot say with certainty how far Thai democracy has moved forward and at what pace. But in the experiences of the West, it took more than a century before democracy was fully developed…Thai people have experienced the essence of democracy and freedom throughout the seventy-five years since our first constitution, it is highly unlikely that they will settle for less”. He argued he has “every intention of working for the people of Thailand so that the noble ideal (democracy) that people have fought for and died for, the ideal that sparked a nine year old boy’s career choice, are more than just words on the piece of paper”. He then concluded by quoting Oxford’s motto “at Oxford there is the light that shines on me”, and stated the final words “to be noble means not just do things right but do the right things, for myself, for my country, and beyond, and that include more democratic progress for Thailand”.
The talk was followed by the Q&A session, when many in the audience asked the PM questions that mostly related to the current situation including lese majeste.
The first member of the audience who asked a question was Associate Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn. Giles began by saying that he faced a lese majeste charge from the Abhisit government for writing an academic book, and there are several people in Thailand are also facing the same charge unjustifiably. He then went on to criticise Abhisit’s government for relying on the military intervention (in lobbying the faction of MPs to support them) to get into power, for having members of the cabinet that participated in the closing down of the airport, and for neglecting to charge the army general who ordered the Takbai massacre. He ended by asking Abhisit to have a debate with him live on national television on the topic of democracy. Abhisit responded to Giles by saying that the fact that he agreed to answer questions (like Giles’ questions) is a testament that he is a democratic politician, and he would be surprised if the people whom Giles admired when they were PM would accept such questions from the audience. He then argued that Giles’ facts were not right, a number of lese majeste charges were not made when his party is in power, it was made during the time when Thaksin or his followers ran the government. He also faced the lese majeste charge during Thaksin’s government but the police dropped the charge. He argued that people who are democrats must respect and not run away from the law, and he believes that Giles’ charge was legitimate because he made an allegation that the monarchy backed the coup (which is something that Giles has to prove, he said). Giles asked Abhisit to clarify which part of the book said that. Abhisit said he has not seen the details, but he read Giles book, and he has been told that Giles made specific allegations.
Abhisit then defended the lese majeste by saying that there are similar laws in some European countries that have constitutional monarchies. There was a person in one European country who has been imprisoned by a similar law. The law itself is not necessarily undemocratic, “if you say the same thing or made the same allegation against ordinary people, you will also be taken to court…what the law does is to give protection to the royal family in the same way that libel laws protect ordinary people”. Abhisit then argued that some difference between the two laws (lese majeste charges can be filed to the police by anyone) exist because the Thai royal family is a neutral institution – above partisanship, above conflict, revered by the Thais, and a key pillar of national security – and therefore the law does not want the monarchy to take legal action against people. Abhisit said that there are number of people who are still fighting this charge, and a number of charges have been dropped. Abhisit then played his trump card; “there are number of people who stay there (in the country) and fight the charge because they believe they are innocent, and they don’t run away from being charged”. Giles responded; “I am not running away from the charge”. Abhisit said; “I did not say you did”. This was met by a big round of applause.
Giles then asked Abhisit to debate with him on television. Abhisit responded by saying that he would only have a debate with Giles back in Thailand, because Giles needs to be under Thai law like any other Thai citizen.
Abhisit went on to say he is actually the first prime minister in Thailand to state that the lese majeste law can be abused. He already expressed his concern with the police and indicated that they have to be fair and sensitive to this issue. He is also in the process of getting together some academics to work out how best to enforce the law, so that the purpose of the law will not be defeated. Moreover, he is doing the same with the Computer Crime Act. He is the first prime minister to invite the group called Netizen to work out how best to deal with illegal content on the web. He said, in the end, “so please stop trying to drag the monarchy to the political conflict, the monarchy is above political conflict, and we should keep the institution, which is highly revered by the Thais, neutral and non-partisan and stay above all other conflict in Thailand…If you have problems with me, debate with me, but don’t drag the monarchy into the conflict”. This was also met with another round of applause from the audience.
Abhisit then argued that he is determined to bring back justice by bringing other cases, such as that of Somchai Nilabhihit, back to investigation. He said that his intention is also to bring back the charge to the army general who is associated with the Takbai incident. Regarding the coup, he said that he was the first politician who condemned the September 2006 coup. Regarding the media freedom, he is also the first prime minister in more than a decade that opened television time for the opposition, the problem is that the opposition still cannot find a leader. This was also met with another round of applause by the audience.
The question and answer with Giles ended there. Other members of the audience subsequently voiced their questions to Abhisit. One Thai man pointed out that it’s misleading to say lese majeste is just a royal version of the libel law, as it is more comprehensive than the libel law. He also asked how far Abhisit is willing to trade-off freedom with national security. Abhisit responded by saying that it was him who stopped members of his party from their initiative to tighten up the law. He conceded that the law can be interpreted to cover wide a range of activities, but he said he is willing to accept the problem in terms of how the law should be better enforced and interpreted for protecting the monarchy.
Then, he talked about the charge against the Thai Foreign Minister. He explained that the charge occurred only after he became the Foreign Minister not after the airport closure took place. Therefore, he believes the allegation was politically motivated. However, he said that everybody has to be treated justly regardless of the color of his/her shirt.
One Thai female then asked why the PAD leaders are still free even though they broke every rule of law in shutting down the airport. Abhisit said that he already instructed the police to proceed as quickly as possible. He said, “they (the police) are now in the process of issuing the warrant for the case of occupying Government House. I have the police report regularly to me and I report to the parliament concerning the airport case. As of the last time, they reported to me a couple of weeks ago, 90 percent of the report was completed. So I expect the action to be taken very soon”. The woman asked him to give a timeframe, and he responded that the police said that they will take a few more weeks.
Few questions about the ASEAN came up from the crowd regarding the future of relationships between ASEAN countries, and the issue of human rights. Abhisit said that he and other national leaders had already set up the Asian human rights body, and hope that they will be in charge of promoting the awareness of human rights.
A young Thai female in a yellow shirt then asked how Abhisit would convince the rural people that democracy is the best way forward. Abhisit responded by saying that he thinks the majority of Thai people now appreciate the value of democracy. Political parties are now competing on many dimensions to be elected. “I’m not worried about people wanting to protect democracy”, he said. He argued that although democracy in terms of majority rule is well-understood; “what is not understood is that in true liberal democracy, all governments have limited power. The idea of democracy is just the majority rule means unlimited power is misleading”. He also explained that the elected power and the courts should work on the right balance for stable democracy.
A young foreign female asked whether she would be arrested if she was in Thailand and was to write an article saying the monarchy are a feudal monarchy. Abhisit said that it depends on whether she also make allegations against the monarchy, and said that he also wants to work on the clarification of what the lese majeste law covers. The same young female then asked what would happen if there is no clarification. Abhisit said that if he made fair criticism, then he can defend that in the court. “The freedom of expression should be given as long as you protect the key institution. There is such kind of law in every country”, he said.
One of the audience members then asked about the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya by the Thai army. Abhisit said that he is now working on the investigation of the matter. He said that he and the other agencies who are investigating did not find cases of specific abuse which are alleged by the media. “I asked the media who asked about these allegations for evidence so I can investigate further. They have not responded”, he said.
Finally, one man from Taiwan asked how Abhisit would ensure that the military role and power is reduced and ensure that there will not be a coup again. Abhisit responded to this by saying that he thinks military power in Thai politics has already been declining. He said that the military only staged the last coup because the Thaksin government had abused so much of their power. It is, therefore, important for the democratically elected government not to “set up the conditions for the military to come in”. He ended his response and his talk by arguing that he believes the military has now learned their hard lesson and it is now “really up to the politicians to not only [be] running democracy, but also protecting democracy”.