Thai finance minister faces grilling at Foreign Correspondents’ Club

Thai Finance Minister Sommai Phasee is the first Cabinet member who agreed to speak at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Thailand since the military coup in May last year. -- FILE PICTURE: THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Thai Finance Minister Sommai Phasee is the first Cabinet member who agreed to speak at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Thailand since the military coup in May last year. -- FILE PICTURE: THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

There were many tough questions waiting for Finance Minister Sommai Phasee when he stepped into the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) on Thursday night. 

He was the first Cabinet member who had agreed to speak at the club since the coup in May last year. His military government, meanwhile, has not indicated when it would lift the eight-month old martial law.

It had instead sparked concern with pending legislation that would give the state the power to intercept Internet communication with little judicial oversight. It had pledged to get tough on corruption and require future governments to exercise fiscal respnsibility. Yet, it had just stopped the launch of a report on press freedom. Coup-maker and prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha personally warned journalists that they risked being “summoned” by the military if they asked too many unconstructive questions.

Under the spotlight at the FCCT, Mr Sommai was asked perhaps the most difficult question: Could he honestly say that everyone in the Cabinet is free from the taint of corruption?

There was a slight pause before he replied: “You should have a time frame.”

Laughter rang out in the room, for many in the audience were familiar with the graft allegations that has dogged the military over its previous purchases of fake bomb detectors as well as a problematic 350 million baht (S$14.5 million) surveillance blimp.

Mr Sommai said he had told General Prayuth that his government needed to show the world it was serious about staying clean and fighting graft.

“It’s his responsibility, it’s not my responsibility,” he said.

The former career civil servant had laid out his team’s many plans, like tax reforms to turn Thailand into a financial and business hub, an overhaul of state enterprises and legislation to instil fiscal discipline into future governments.

A journalist pointed out that they sounded like plans of a government that had just won election and a full term to carry them out.

Does this mean the military government was planning to stick around for longer, instead of holding elections in a year’s time as projected?

“I am not a young guy,” Mr Sommai replied. “I cannot work hard for so many years”. He admitted the plans would “take a long time” to fulfil. What his government was trying to do was the lay the foundation for transparency, he said.

What will it do to help farmers then, another journalist asked. Rice farmers have been at the centre of Thailand’s recent political conflict because of a controversial scheme administered by the now deposed government that allowed them to sell their padi to the state at some 50 per cent above market prices. Mr Sommai estimated that the scheme had cost about 550 billion baht, though that figure could come down if the government sells off the 17 million tonnes of rice in its stockpile.

“No country can ignore farmers,” he replied. “We have to do more…But we have to be careful.”

Then came the inevitable question on martial law. Was it affecting business?

“Not much, but I say yes,” he said.

Mr Sommai said he had asked Gen Prayuth himself when it would be lifted, he said.

“But his answer was very clear: ‘If I stop it now and something happened to Thailand, to Thai people, who is going to be responsible?’”

Gen Prayuth, he said, is retaining martial law “because there are some gangsters who want to fight with the government, with the military, still”.

Mr Sommai left the club shortly after, leaving a queue of disappointed people waiting for answers to their burning questions.

Then again, as one of the rare few civilians in the military-dominated Cabinet, backed up by a military-dominated legislature, perhaps the biggest answers of the day did not lie with him.

tanhy@sph.com.sg