Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s recently-named Prime Minister, gave a speech at a Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand dinner last night. It was his first address given to the entire foreign press corps. In his 30-minute speech, the 44-year-old, British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit said he would work to achieve reconciliation and social justice in a country that has seen ongoing political chaos.
Outside the event, which was held at Bangkok’s Intercontinental Hotel, a small group of opposition protesters staged a demonstration. Many in Thailand still support ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and his backers have recently held a series of protests around the city. They argue that Abhisit came to power last month through a “judicial coup” following the PAD’s closure of Bangkok’s airports and the subsequent banning of the Thaksin-linked People Power Party. One of the protesters held up a sign saying that foreign governments should boycott the upcoming ASEAN summit.
Inside the hotel’s ballroom, though, the atmosphere was relatively lighthearted.
Here are my notes from PM Abhisit’s speech:
On being Prime Minister
- “I knew this would be an incredibly difficult job…and there is no doubt that the number one priority is to get the system to work again.”
- “I know that my job is requiring a grand plan for reconciliation. But it won’t happen without justice. I intend to achieve justice in three key areas.”
Abhisit then outlined the following three points:
- “The restoration of the rule of law” will be crucial. “I’m not just leaving everything to the police. I’m in the process of finding a few people…and I will ask them to help ensure that there’s a good overview of what’s happened.”
- “There has to be justice through political reform. The red shirts say the constitution is dictatorial and must be reformed. The yellow shirts say they want a ‘new politics.’
- “Most important: I will prove that my government will not discriminate; we will work for all Thais, no matter where they live…I will work for every single Thai…”
On political divisions in Thailand
- “It isn’t true that elites and grassroots people have different ideas about what’s best for the country. It just isn’t true…On one side, they believe that democracy should be about majority rule…But on the other side, they expect democracy to return a government that practices good governance that is transparent and accountable. I will prove that both are possible.”
On international relations
- Holding he ASEAN summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, will “send a clear signal: We are back in business.”
On Thailand’s south
- “The situation over the last two years has been, at best, stable. But it hasn’t improved markedly…I intend to pass a law to set up an office with a minister for Southern affairs…”
- “The character of Thai people is very clear: it is our resilience. We’ve come through so many crises in the past. There’s no reason we can’t do so again…We simply can’t ask for cooperation. We must earn it. I intend to earn it.”
On tourism and the rule of law
- For the Q&A session following his speech, I asked Prime Minister Abhisit about tourism and security in Thailand. Following November’s airport closure, many Americans and other foreigners wonder if it’s safe to travel to Thailand. How will the Thai government communicate to the world that the rule of law still exists in Thailand?
- PM Abhisit said that he expected tourism numbers to hold steady, and that “we’re on the right path, and determined to stay on this path.”
On lese majeste cases and the Web site crackdown
- “The monarchy has immense benefits as a stabilizing force. We have respect for freedom of expression.” Web sites “shouldn’t allow illegal content…We will try to enforce the law while allowing freedom of expression.”
More on political divisions within Thailand
- Abhisit noted that in the US, there are differences in political thought among people who live on the east and west coasts and the mid-west. But he asked whether this truly reflects a “fundamental difference,” and whether this means that people who disagree with one another “can’t live in the same country?” He noted that “democracy isn’t just about elections. It’s about respect and the law. Everyone must be equal under the law.”
On Myanmar (Burma)
- He was asked what Thailand will do to bring about change in neighboring Myanmar. He said that “it’s time for change that will benefit the people and the government.”
On his musical tastes
And finally, on a lighter note, PM Abhisit was asked about his musical tastes and about some of his favorite music from 2008. He mentioned that he like the following bands:
- The Killers
- Guns N’ Roses
- Arctic Monkeys
Here’s some media coverage of the event: