FT interview transcript: Thaksin Shinawatra

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Published: March 3 2008 21:35 | Last updated: March 3 2008 21:35

Amy Kazmin, the FT’s South-East Asia Correspondent, interviewed Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister, in Bangkok on Monday, March 3, 2008. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation:

FINANCIAL TIMES: Many people are now looking at Thailand and wondering what is going to happen next. The Thai economy has really seemed to struggle over the last two years. What do you think Thailand needs to do now to revive the economy and restore foreign investor confidence?

THAKSIN SHINAWATRA: Confidence is the key. It’s quite difficult after a coup d’etat, the political uncertainty is going to be a big question for the investor, especially [the] foreign investor [who knows] little about the nature of Thai politics. That will be a big obstacle for bringing back confidence.

FT: Even now?

TS: Even now. We still need to do a lot more. When you go out for [a] road show, the investor will ask the question of political stability. We have to prove ourselves. The Thai has to help each other to bring back real reconciliation. And also, the local press especially, we have to present the news in a more constructive way. If the local press is not constructive how will the foreign press be constructive? They are just following what is happening in the local press.

FT: What do you mean by constructive?

TS: Constructive – it means [bringing] back the reconciliation, trying to avoid small things about having conflict among the Thai. That will create a picture of political stability, and then the confidence will be there. That is the prerequisite to bring back economic confidence. I have been travelling a lot and have met with a lot of investors world wide. And the question of political stability is the prerequisite for economic confidence.

FT: We’ll come back to that, but in terms of economic policy specifically, what do you think needs to be done?

TS: We have to take the opportunities of a strong baht and weaker dollar to import capital goods and machinery to upgrade our production. We have been using old technology for many years. So it is now the time to invest. The government has to facilitate the import of more of the capital goods and machinery to upgrade our production quality. That is what we should do now, not just complain about [a] strong baht and weaker dollar. …We are an export-led growth economy. [The] domestic economy is not that [developed] yet, [domestic] consumption is not that much yet. We import so little, we have [a trade] surplus [and] it adds to the stronger baht. We have to take this opportunity to import and invest. Especially in the mega-projects. It’s time to invest now. We have quite healthy reserves. We should invest now.

FT: How well positioned do you think Thailand is, as an export-oriented economy, now to ride out a US economic slowdown?

TS: Luckily, during my administration we diversified the market, we diversified the [range] of products that we export. But the US is still our major market. [An] economic slowdown in [the] US will definitely affect [us]. But luckily the products we export to US markets, are the ‘basic need’ products, so we should be able to survive. Another thing we have to be careful [of] is that the privileges that we receive on our exports to the US should not be affected. … We also have to watch after the [US] election how the new government will [pursue] free trade agreements [such as the one Thailand is eager to have].

FT: Are you concerned that some of the privileges Thai exports enjoy could be revoked because of Thailand’s compulsory licensing of US pharmaceutical products?

TS: We have to be careful on every move. The US government is really pushed by the private sector. Some big private sector is [the] pharmaceutical [industry] they are a big association pushing the US government a lot. … For compulsory licensing, we have to be very cautious. For compulsory, it means it’s really necessary, not just usual. So we have to be very careful how we move on that.

FT: How much damage do you think was done to the Thai economy by the last two years of political turbulence?

TS: Confidence is very expensive economically. When it’s gone it will cost a lot of money to bring it back – and time, not just money. People don’t understand well enough the worth of confidence.

FT: What can be done to bring back confidence in Thailand?

TS: We have to start with the consumer confidence. You have to inject the money down to the grassroots levels, so their spending will start to turn. When consumer confidence starts, we will have to bring local investor confidence – then the foreign investor will come. Tourism, or service industry, is one of the main income streams, and we have to revive it.

FT: You don’t think just the fact that Thailand has had an election and installed an elected government is enough?

TS: Not enough! Not enough! Not enough!

FT: [Finance Minister] Surapong Suebwonglee has said he would like you to advise him on the economy, and you clearly have strong ideas about what needs to be done about the economy. …

TS: You know, giving advice – it may create obligation on both sides. … I am more senior to him. If I give advice and he [doesn’t] take my advice, I will feel bad. And if he didn’t take my advice, he will feel bad as well. Why don’t I be a lecturer instead of advisor? I can be a lecturer not just for him, but for the investors, or the business sector, or the economic teams of the government. If they think I can give some lecture about the global economy, and how its’ linked to the Thai economy, those things, I can give the lecture. After I give the lecture there is no obligation on both sides. They don’t have to do whatever I [say], they can think on their own and mix their ideas.

FT: So are you turning down his request to be an advisor?

TS: I don’t think I should be. I don’t want to get involved in politics. When I don’t want to get involved in politics – why should I take the advisory position?

FT: You talked about the importance of political stability in a factor restoring confidence. How do you assess Thailand’s prospects for political stability?

TS: I think it will be better now. I have started to talk with my former opponents, especially military people, and they all now – especially myself, we forgive everything, we don’t feel any antagonism to others. …. I forgive everyone – and I am not involved in politics. So don’t worry about me. And I would ask the press – don’t worry about where I am going, what I am doing. I am not a public figure any more.

FT: Many people were very shocked at the September 2006 military coup because they thought that Thailand had put the era of military coup behind it. Do you feel now that there is a risk of military coup in the future? Or do you think this was the last coup?

TS: I believe always that democracy is the best. There should not be any hiccup in democracy development in any country. When you start the democratic process, you should continue until it matures. If you take it back, it’s difficult to bring back confidence. During my administration, I believe there should not be any coup. But still it can happen. So Thailand is different. When there is a coup it is not that bad in terms of the impact both domestically and internationally. Even if we have a coup, the Thai monarchy is very strong, very well respected domestically and internationally. So that is different than other countries. We have some impact definitely but it’s not that much when compared with other countries. It’s difficult to predict there will be no coup in the future. But I cannot think about the near future. It might be later on. But it will be quite many years, not now.

FT: Why do you feel it is unlikely to happen now? Some of your political allies are concerned that there is still a risk…

TS: The country is quite fragile now.

FT: Fragile?

TS: If you were to have another coup, it will cost the country too much. …If it were to be a near future coup, the country is still very fragile. … That is dangerous…

FT: Do you think the military has learned any lessons from this coup?

TS: What [do you] mean by military? Military means the whole group of soldiers. … It [did] not really benefit the military. …Subordinates just [did] whatever their boss said. It depends on the top people – a few of them.

FT: And those who led this coup?

TS: Some have retired; some are about to retire. So they will enjoy their lives with their families.

FT: Do you think the balance of power between civilian politicians and the military has changed as a result of the coup?

TS: No. This constitution [introduced by the military-backed government last year] … has to be changed. Otherwise the respect of the people’s rights is not there. You don’t regard democracy as the people power. …The constitution is like the plan to build a house. Before you build a good house, you have to have a good plan. The good plan should start with the wish of the tenants who are going to live there. You have to ask them, talk to them. What do they want? How many bedrooms? How many bathrooms? En suite or not en suite? You have to talk to them. And secondly, you have to have a professional architect. But this [constitution was not done by] a professional architect. [They wrote] a plan without asking the tenant – the owner of the house.

FT: This constitution does give the military greater power than in the 1997 constitution, when the military was clearly under civilian control, doesn’t it?

TS: If this parliament does not do anything to amend this constitution, I think the whole parliament is not really faithful to their people. They come from them as democracy – they have to amend this constitution.

FT: Are there specific things you think need to be amended?

TS: So many things. …. The major one is the respect of the people’s power. You form a company – shareholders are supposed to have the most power. … Now the people have less power, the structure is wrong. …Those key people who were involved in drafting the constitution are not the democratic men. When the non-professional architects write a plan without asking the owner, when the house is finished, its not the house that you want to live in.

FT: You say are you are out of politics, and don’t want to be politically active any more. But many Thai voters definitely associate the People’s Power Party with you, and they voted for the PPP because they thought it would be voting for you. So what responsibility do you feel for the successful performance for the PPP government?

TS: If you remember on the day that they dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party (Mr Thaksin’s former ruling party), I wrote a letter to the people, and I urged the former TRT politicians to pack together and continue their political work for the benefit of the country and the people. They did whatever I told them to do. [So] I felt obliged. … They wanted me to support them because they said the people still loved me and [they] wanted me to support them. So I supported [them]….But [in] a personal capacity – not anything about politics. They wanted to continue the TRT ideology, so I felt obliged to support them.

FT: And now that they are in power don’t you still feel some obligation to support them?

TS: No, it’s finished. It’s their new party, new ideology. There might be some root from Thai Rak Thai. But they have new leaders, new executive board, new Cabinet. I am not involved. … If you need me to give a lecture on my experience during my administration, or my experience after being ousted and touring around the world, I can do it.

FT: But what about voters who voted for the PPP thinking that they were somehow voting for you?

TS: Voters voted for the PPP because I had been bullied too much, and they [didn’t] believe one man can be that bad – [that] the man that they had respected and loved can be that bad. … They just wanted to give me some justice, that’s it.

FT: You don’t feel that you have some obligation to help the government?

TS: If I were to help the government, I’d probably create more problems than [I solved.] Unity of command is very important. The prime minister, and the leader is there. Wherever the formal structure has been superseded by the informal structure, that will be bad for that organisation to run perfectly. …I will concentrate on fighting my court case.

FT: You picked Samak [Sundaravej, the prime minister] and asked him to lead the PPP. How much contact do you have with him?

TS: Seldom, just as a good friend.

FT: The military froze your family’s $1.9bn in profits from the Shin Corp sale. But so far there has been no case brought in connection with that deal. What do you see as the prospects for getting that money back?

TS: It’s really unlawful [what they did.] But under [a] dictatorship you can do anything you want. That might be the purpose of preventing me from using my money to help the PPP in the election. Another thing is they don’t want me to move around. But its very unlawful, and we will file a case definitely [seeking the return of the assets].

FT: Do you feel confident you will get it back?

TS: It’s the asset we own before we enter politics! In 1994, when I voluntarily declared my assets, [Shin Corp] was there.

FT: Do you ever regret deciding to sell Shin Corp at the time you did?

TS: It belonged to my children. … They may want cash for some other business; it’s their right to sell it. We already gave it to them.

FT: Maybe I should rephrase and ask you, do regret that your children sold Shin Corp at the time that they did?

TS: You know, in our family, we are always looking ahead, looking forward. Things in the back are just the lesson.

FT: When you do look back at your tenure in power, many people put their trust in you, but a lot of them, over time, turned away. Do you have any regrets from your tenure in office?

TS: No [elected Thai prime minister] has ever stayed in office continuously as long as myself. And when you stay long enough you make decisions every day. Some decisions this group likes, or does not like. It may affect some groups. In my case, I tried to build the country from the foundation, from the grassroots. But those on the top, they always enjoy the benefit of weak government. … They never build anything basic or [lay] foundations. But we want to stay longer to build the whole nation from the foundations [up]. They may think, ‘when are you going to come to me? Not yet.’ So they may not like it. But actually when the foundation is strong, the top will be very, very strong. But they cannot wait.

FT: Looking forward, what are your plans?

TS: I have Manchester City, and have the Thaicom Foundation, and I might be chairman of the [already established] Shinawatra University.

FT: Are you able to leave the country?

TS: I can just ask the permission from the court. … I [would not run away] from the case. I could not come [back to Thailand before last week] because I did not want to create turmoil in the country, and the court knows that. [But once] I come, I will obey whatever the court said.

(BangkokPost.com) – Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva on Tuesday countered Thaksin Shinawatra’s attack on coup makers and the previous government that they are responsible for economic slowdown.

Mr Abhisit said that is just Mr Thaksin’s personal opinion.

He called on Mr Thaksin to stop blaming others, adding that it is the responsibility of the current government to solve economic problems as they promised to voters prior to the Dec 23 general election last year.

He said it is now time to move on, and every party should help solve national problems.

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