Thai statesman Anand Panyarachun warns of 'tensions beneath the surface'

Anand Panyarachun, former Thailand PM, speaking in Bangkok on March 23, 2016. PHOTO: NICK NOSTITZ

Thailand's elder statesman Anand Panyarachun steered the country through times of political crisis twice as prime minister in the early 1990s. Today, he remains among a handful of people with the stature to be able to speak his mind even under a military government.

"I'm an outsider, but I speak loud and honestly,'' Mr Anand said in a keynote speech to more than 200 people at a dinner on March 23 hosted by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand.

Still sharp of mind at 83, Mr Anand was born in 1932, the year Thailand abolished absolute monarchy to become a constitutional monarchy. He has thus lived through 19 coups d'etat - 12 of them successful - and 19 constitutions. Only Haiti, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic have had more charters.

He chaired a committee that drafted the 1997 Constitution, considered Thailand's most inclusive. This was abolished by the military in September 2006 after it threw out the elected government of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.

In his speech, Mr Anand outlined his own views of what Thailand should strive for. These are, most importantly, equality and inclusiveness, he said.

In one of only two slight deviations from the text, when talking about his vision of a "new normal'' that is "built upon the foundations of democratic governance'', he said, in an aside: "Am I daydreaming?''

Addressing his audience, among them foreign diplomats and prominent Thais, he said: "Sustainable development requires that the fruits of economic growth be spread widely and equitably to ensure social cohesion and continued economic and political legitimacy...

"Many of the problems that we currently face, including the simmering political tensions and sporadic clashes suffered in the past decade, can be traced back to the injustice and inequality inherent in our society.''

Regretting the "winner take all'' nature of Thai politics, he cautioned: "As Thailand approaches elections in the near future, it will be imperative for the winners to consider themselves representative of the entire country, not just of the people who voted them in.''

Thailand has been under tightening military rule since May 22, 2014. A referendum on a new Constitution is set for early August, but it is unclear what will happen if the draft is rejected. The draft charter clearly reduces the role of political parties and has been roundly criticised by the two biggest groups, the Democrat Party and the Puea Thai whose government was thrown out in 2014.

When an election will be held in such circumstances is also unclear, though Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who was army chief when he seized power in May 2014 and installed himself as premier, has said it will be in mid-2017.

Meanwhile, the regime has shown little tolerance for dissent.

Mr Anand, who was educated in England, focused on issues of democracy and governance, and avoided overtly political statements.

But he warned that "a semblance of calm and stability belies tensions beneath the surface".

"When order and stability are imposed rather than allowed to emerge naturally in accordance with the rules and norms of society, there can be no transparency,'' he said.

"When the rule of law is weak, corruption flourishes. Democracy becomes dysfunctional when politicians, civil servants, the private sector, the judiciary, the police, and the military use their power to enrich themselves and advance their own interests at the expense of civil society.''

He added: "We read about the impunity of the rich and powerful in our newspapers every day. An independent and neutral judiciary is fundamental to the rule of law.

"Dissidents must not be prosecuted or deprived of their legal rights.''

Governance through the rule of law together with public accountability and transparency, Mr Anand said, form the basis of responsible government.

Answering a question on democracy in Thailand, he said: "I'm not apologetic about the slow pace of the development of democracy. I am sure I will not live to see it. I am 83.''

He added: "Many Thais irrespective of origins or beliefs tend to place public order, peace and order, at the top of their shopping list.

"I think in a way that helps the present military regime to survive, because quite a number of people still give them credit for restoring peace and order.''

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.