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Thailand’s youngest-ever prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the United States’ first black president Barack Obama came into office at a most difficult time to take on the challenge of reviving their economies.

Unlike the United States, which is facing the worst economic downturn in history, Thailand is apparently in a much better shape, though. The abrupt decline in trade, business closures and job losses resulted from the current global crisis are not as severe as the Asian financial crash of 2007, which started in Thailand and forced the country to ask for a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund.

Yet, for Abhisit, known as a ‘clean’ if not ‘clever’ politician, getting the economy back on the growth track comes with a prerequisite to close as much as possible the widening political division, the root cause of Thailand’s economic downturn. Then, there are other priorities competing to get his attention.   

Thailand almost missed the great opportunity to play host to the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which it is a founding member, due to domestic political chaos which started last May and climaxed in December with the seizure of the capital’s international airport by the yellow-clad anti-government protesters who call themselves People’s Alliance for Democracy.

The protests were targeted against the then ruling People Power Party, known to be an incarnation of Thai Rak Thai Party, founded by the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was accused of corruption and cronyism.

The pro-Thaksin government was forced to step down by a court ruling which found the ruling party and some coalition parties guilty of violating the constitution.

This paved the way for the opposition Democrat Party, led by Abhisit, to form a new government.

Challenges await the new prime minister. The economy is reeling. The 14th Asean Summit is under threat from pro-Thaksin red-shirts. The Pheua Thai party, the opposition party made up of MPs from the banned People Power Party, has vowed to dislodge the Democrat-led government at any cost.   

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the self-professed workaholic, has competing and urgent tasks at hand to attend to. He has promised to put all his efforts and go extra miles to achieve the goals he has set. Can he do it?

He took that question and others in an exclusive interview with AseanAffairs’ founder and CEO S. Roy

Q. With the recent swearing in of Barack Obama there have been parallels drawn between you and him, because you are both youthful leaders. He carries great hope from the world and America and you for Thailand and the region. What similarities do you see?

A. Thank you. The comparison is very flattering. The (US) President (Barack Obama) has made history just being where he is today and there is so much hope pinned on him. What we have in common is the fact that there are huge challenges facing us in the economic crisis and here (in Thailand) we also have the political dimension interacting with these economic problems.

Q. How do you describe your first days as Thailand’s prime minister?

A. I think we have moved very swiftly. In the first month we needed to restore confidence and return politics to normalcy as much as possible. We also needed to find a clear direction as to how we would tackle the economy. I think we have done just that.

There have been small protests now and then but on the whole people can now see a functioning government, parliament has reopened and things are getting back to normal. As far as the economic challenge is concerned we have passed the framework for the stimulus package comprising a mid-year budget which will be put before parliament at the end of January.

Other measures, such as tax incentives and other policies have been passed by cabinet and now I am communicating these to the rest of the world and to the business community.

Q. There have been mixed responses to the cabinet you have formed.

A. While there were some headlines at the end of December we will be judged by our performance and I think there has been tremendous progress over the past few weeks. There has been much discussion over the stimulus package and they will wait and see how we perform.

Q. You are happy with the cabinet you have formed?

A. I think we are working very swiftly and we have been rewarded by the electorate in recent by-elections which consolidated our parliamentary majority.

Q. What are the key components in revitalizing the economy?

A. We have been badly hit by the spill-over from the financial crisis. Exports and the number of tourists are both down in the last quarter of 2008. We need to wait a few months before we see positive changes. The challenge is to tap into the domestic market to ensure there is enough purchasing power to sustain economic growth in the first half of this year and to put money into the pockets of such as low income workers and into programs for the unemployed and those threatened with lay-off, the elderly and also money for free education and subsidies for basic services.

Q. To offset the fall in exports and in tourism you are going to revive the domestic market and foreign exports?

A. To some extent, but we are also working very hard to restore confidence to boost the tourism industry. We have put together a package for the tourist industry that includes reduced landing fees and tax incentives. That will help but I am already encouraged by the numbers I see coming back. I hope there will be a recovery swifter than expected.

Q. Thailand Elite card members have had their five year visa extension suspended.

A. I will look into that and see what we can do to fix it but more generally our policy direction is to relax the more restrictive measures that have been put in place in the past couple of years. We want to send a clear message that we welcome visitors.

Q. How long do you think it will take to bring about political reconciliation and thus to restore confidence in the economy? Read the Complete Article Subscribe to ASEANAFFAIRS Magazine


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