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AseanAffairs Magazine September - October 2010

Thai Prime Minister
Abhisit Vejjajiva

Four months on in the reconciliation process Asean Affairs examines the progress and shortcomings of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s plan to bridge

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Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya is a career diplomat having served in Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1968 and as foreign minister since 2008. He prepared for his role through studies in Thailand as well as at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Washington, D.C., and the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands. Taking a break from his frequent travels representing Thailand abroad, Mr. Kasit, who also speaks for the Democrat Party and the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, answered these questions for an exclusive Asean Affairs interview.

Q: At times, domestic politics within a country can severely impact foreign relations, and there has been a recent example of this in Thailand. The National Telecommunications Commission is apparently proposing to reduce “foreign dominance” in the telecom industry, yet the agreements signed by Thailand for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) call for liberalization in 2015 of the telecom sector, with foreign firms holding as much as 75 percent share. Does the Foreign Ministry plan to intervene in this matter or perhaps “enlighten” the commission? If not, doesn’t this negatively impact Thailand’s membership in the AEC in addition to harming foreign direct investment in Thailand? If the NTC’s “foreign dominance” push succeeds, wouldn’t it discredit Thailand’s ability to live up to international agreements in the eyes of the international community?

A: In the past few weeks, this issue has attracted much attention with comments or voices of concern from many stakeholders. There is no final conclusion on this issue yet, but I can assure you that Thailand has unwavering faith in free and fair trade. We are committed to our international obligations under international agreements, including the WTO. We will make sure that our laws and regulations as well as government actions will be consistent with international obligations and international standard practices. The question regarding the nominee issue needs to be tackled with appropriate regulations, and the government will give it a careful and thorough consideration. We welcome comments and voices of concern from all stakeholders. Comments can also be sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we will transmit them to relevant agencies for their consideration.

Q: Members of the Mekong River Sub-region, including Thailand, have expressed concern about the impact of four dams the Chinese are building or planning to build on the upper Mekong. The concerns have been propelled by the historically low levels of the Mekong this year. The Chinese responded in April blaming the drought, not the diversion of the water of Lancang River. What’s your view? As the dams are all within China, what can be done?

A: The Mekong River is very important as it is linked with all aspects of the lives of the people who settle along its banks in six countries, namely China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. They depend on the Mekong water for consumption, agricultural production, and water transportation. It is also a significant source of fish and other aquatic products. To ensure sustainability of the river, the riparian states have worked together through international cooperation on water usage and management. The Mekong River Commission, or MRC, was established to serve that purpose.

Even though China and Myanmar have not yet become MRC members, they have actively participated in MRC meetings as well as programmes of works as dialogue partners. Thailand hosted the First MRC Summit in April this year. The Summit produced the strategies for future sustainable use of the Mekong River – for member countries to come up with measures to improve water quality in priority areas of the Basin while sustaining the use of water and related resources, aquatic biodiversity, wetlands and forests in the Basin. At the meeting, China confirmed its commitment to provide hydrological and meteorological information as well as any future plan for dam operation. This would help establish mutual trust and synchronize water usage and management programmes among the Mekong riparian states.

Foreign ministers of the 10 Asean countries and Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, far right , meet with other Asean members in Hanoi earlier this year.

Q: Do you feel that by the constitutional end date for elections to be held in December 2011, the Democrat Party will be able to campaign in all regions of Thailand? Do you still have hopes for an early 2011 election?

A: We have to admit that political differences and social division still exist and that our country is going through a process of becoming a full-fledged democratic society. The election will definitely take place some time next year. And, of course, election campaigning is vital and all political parties should be given equal chances to campaign in all parts of the country. All sides have to respect the law and play by the rules. The government is fully committed to using the remaining time of our term to work on national reconciliation and necessary reforms to heal the social division and tensions.
We are working to address the problems of political, economic, social, legal and other aspects, using the Prime Minister’s five-point reconciliation roadmap. The five points include: to uphold the monarchy, to resolve fundamental problems of social injustice, to ensure that the media operate constructively, to establish facts about violent incidents during the protests, and to establish mutually acceptable political rules. Four committees have been set up to work on reform of various aspects. I am positive that if all parts of the society work together on this, we will be able to hold free and fair elections that all political parties can campaign for their candidates in all regions of the country.

Q: Do you have a plan to resolve the ongoing Phra Viharn border conflict dispute with Cambodia?

A: Thailand is committed to resolving boundary-related issues with Cambodia, including Phra Viharn, peacefully through bilateral channels and through the implementation of the 2000 Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Kingdom of Thailand and the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia on the Survey and Demarcation of Land Boundary.

We intend to work closely with Cambodia through the Thai- Cambodian Joint Commission on Demarcation for Land Boundary (JBC) within the framework of the aforementioned MOU. Other bilateral channels include the General Border Committee (GBC), which will be held from 8-9 September 2010, and the Regional Border Committee (RBC) that has just been convened from 18-19 August 2010.

We are ready to host the next round of the JBC in order to continue further discussions on the Phra Viharn issue. However, Cambodia prefers that the meeting be held after the Agreed Minutes of previous JBC meetings are approved by the Parliament first. The Government has already re-submitted the Agreed Minutes for the Parliament’s consideration as required by the Thai Constitution.

Q: Please describe Thailand’s relationship with China against the strong backdrop of Thailand’s continuing relationship with the United States. The best of both worlds?

A: A strong relationship with China and one with the United States are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Thailand has a long history of good and cordial relations as well as close cooperation with both countries.

I think we should keep the entire region open to all interested countries. This would lead to healthy competition that would contribute to peace and stability as well as sustainable socioeconomic development in the region.

Indeed, we acknowledge China’s continuing active engagement and cooperation with other countries in the region in various areas of mutual interests, including its valuable role in spearheading the region’s speedy recovery from the 2008 global economic and financial crisis. We also welcome indications of renewed U.S. interest in the region, most notably the U.S. proposal to share the experience of the Mississippi River Commission on water management and related issues. We will continue to support both countries’ constructive roles in the region.

Under Thai Chairmanship, ASEAN introduced the concept of ASEAN Connectivity to reduce development gaps and promote a sense of community required for sustainable socio-economic development in the region. The concept is multi-faceted and has a strategic rationale to promote integration between ASEAN member states and beyond. We welcome all interested partners to jointly work with us to accelerate the path towards ASEAN Community. Both China and the U.S. have the capacity to undertake development projects of such magnitude, and we welcome both countries as external partners.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya speaks to the gathering at the Asean Quiz 2010.

Q: Are you concerned about China’s growing dominance throughout the region?

A: There is no doubt that China will continue to rise, not only in terms of its wealth but also its might and clout. China is undoubtedly a huge country with great potential, but such potential must be tempered with an equally great sense of responsibility. The rise of China may have caused concern for many people. I still see China’s continuing active cooperation and engagement with other countries in the region, as well as within the ASEAN framework, as an indication of China’s intention to be a peaceful and responsible power. Indeed, how China deals with regional hot-spots such as the Korean Peninsula, Myanmar and the South China Sea will be testimony to its role as a responsible power.
Looking ahead, we hope to continue to strengthen our cooperation with China both bilaterally and regionally. There is so much we can do together to take advantage of common opportunities such as infrastructural development and people-to-people connectivity in the Mekong sub-region, as well as tackling common challenges such as drug and human trafficking, people smuggling and other forms of transnational crime, climate change, and water resource management, just to name a few.

Q: You have been quoted as saying, “Four reconciliation commissions have been set up, which will among other things lead to a new and better balanced constitution, a ‘more responsible’ media, and national reform that will improve the distribution of wealth.” When can we expect to hear something from these four commissions? 

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya is in shown in good spirits at his home base, the Foreign Ministry in Bangkok.

A: The various committees established under the reconciliation plan have been pressing ahead with its respective tasks. Each of them has its own time frame in fulfilling the mandate. The government will not interfere. They have individually and regularly been updating the public of the progress made.

The Constitutional Reform Committee is expected to finalise their proposals on six key issues for constitutional amendment by the end of August 2010. These will be put to public consultations before being submitted to the government for consideration, by the end of October or early November. Among the six issues they are working on is the question of election rules. The Constitutional Reform Committee is also working on recommendations for strengthening governance under the democratic system such as reform of the justice process. This is a longer-term issue but there could be certain outcome by the end of this year.

The National Reform Committee, chaired by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, and the National Reform Assembly, chaired by Dr. Prawes Wasi, will be dealing mostly with structural issues – to address the problem of social and economic disparities. Their work may take up to three years to complete, but they are also formulating measures to tackle urgent problems by the end of this year.

As for the Independent Fact-finding Commission for Reconciliation, chaired by Professor Dr. Kanit Na Nakorn, it intends to complete its work as soon as possible within a limit of two years. Their progress reports are to be submitted to the Cabinet and made public every six months. Its first report was submitted on 3 August 2010.

On media reform, the media themselves have been spearheading this initiative. The Working Group on Media Reform, chaired by Dr. Yubol Benjarongkit, Dean of the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University, whom the Prime Minister has asked to coordinate on this issue, is expected to finish drafting a code of conduct by the end of this year. All in all, we should have a clear picture of how the reconciliation plan has fared by the end of this year.


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