In an exclusive interview, Thai Opposition Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva speaks about his term as Prime Minister, and sustaining good governance in Thailand.
By Rosalind Chua
Throughout your political career you’ve spoken out consistently against corruption, and stressed the importance of clean governance during your term as Prime Minister. What are you most proud of?
I think it would be the standards and precedence we tried to set in terms of accountability. Whenever there was an allegation of corruption or irregularities we always took it seriously and cooperated with all the independent agencies… at the same time some of the ministers who subsequently were found to not have any part in these irregularities resigned to make sure that the investigations could go ahead .
We approached the private sector who for the first time decided to join this national campaign, which they are actually continuing under this current government. For the first time we had a broad coalition in Thailand among the private and public sectors for this very issue.
For many instances of corruption there are three sides involved, the politicians, the bureaucrats and also the private sector. If we complain about the people who receive bribes, there are also those who pay them. It’s something that needs a joint effort to tackle. Many members of the private sector had become more and more fed up with the idea that when they do business with the state it’s not straightforward competition. That’s going to hold back competitiveness for the country and the private sector.
There’s going to be a shift of attitudes from a situation where people felt that corruption was somehow necessary to oil the machinery of government. These days with more open markets, more intense competition, that’s not the way things should work.
Despite the flooding and the various instances of civil unrest, there is still a large amount of foreign direct investments (FDIs) pouring into Thailand, how would you explain this?
One of the reasons is that the Thai economy has primarily been driven by the private sector. Secondly, despite the political turmoil, lack of continuity or lack of stability of a particular government, at least we have the broad consensus and policy continuity and a similar approach in that we have commitments to the market, to the private sector and also to being an open economy.
We have never really resorted to any kind of protectionism, and in political debates this is one area that has not really been questioned.
During your term as Prime Minister how were you able to tolerate such prolonged unrest?
This would be unthinkable in many countries, including Malaysia.
Tolerance is needed, what with conflict on the streets, with conflict among people. If leaders and governments don’t have tolerance, you can only make the situation worse. Despite the patience and tolerance, you still see the effects; the scars of the conflict are still there with us. Without tolerance it would have been a lot worse.
How do you deal with the undercurrent of populism that to an extent characterises Thai politics? 
If I knew the answer I wouldn’t be the opposition leader! We recognise that once populist policies get implemented people to a certain extent become spoiled, they expect these to continue. What we tried to do during my administration was to slowly adapt some of these programme; for instance we began handouts for the elderly but then we moved towards setting up a pension fund where people would also have to make contributions, slowly building up the idea that there is no free lunch.
Politicians and political parties have to be courageous enough to tell the truth to the public about the dangers of populism, and about why populist policies can’t be sustained. But if not, they’ll (citizens) have to learn the hard way, something we all wish to avoid. If the people continue to experiment with such populist policies they will have to deal with the consequences.What role would you say the Thai military plays in good governance?
The military will have to show its commitment in supporting democracy. Democracy and clean governance may not be synonymous but they can support each other and feed on each other. Agencies which in the past may have enjoyed privileges and may not have been subject to scrutiny or been held accountable for their own duties, now have to recognise that some changes are necessary in the way things are done.
Do you think that the military’s role needs to be reset?
I think the word reset would be too drastic; in an institution like that there is inevitably continuity, they shouldn’t be subject to too rapid changes. But they need to evolve, adapt and face up to new realities.
How adaptable do you think the military has been?
My own experience has been that they are willing to consider and to implement change. One area clearly for me was the policy towards the Deep South. We said that the approach to solving the problem would be to shift the emphasis towards development and justice rather than viewing (the region) as just a traditional security problem. That meant that the army’s role was more of a developmental one to build trust with local people. They had to be much, much more aware that their own actions, even with good intentions, would have to be under scrutiny and they would also be held accountable.
They cooperated, and we were able to lift the state of emergency in one district. We were hoping to do more but then the change…
Earlier you mentioned a lack of continuity with governments, so how is it possible to have sustainable good governance in Thailand?
You don’t want the standards of governance to depend on the government of the day. Ultimately you need supporting mechanisms and institutions to ensure clean governance. What Thailand has been trying to do is to have independent agencies that work on this issue, so that they are not subject to the political changes, the comings and goings of governments.
The ultimate condition for success in the fight against corruption is that you have to bring the public, the whole country on board. If the public or the private sector, if people in general, tolerate corruption you’re never going to win the fight. That’s one area where there shouldn’t be tolerance.
 This question was from a member of the audience, and it being such a salient issue, is extracted for inclusion in this section.