Up close and personal with Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva

  • Business
  • Saturday, 13 Jun 2009

NOT the type to dodge a challenge, Abhisit Vejjajiva is said to be edging closer to the people’s hearts even as protesters line the streets in Thailand. And he appears to be winning the battle, at least as far as media supremacy is concerned.

Just hours after being installed as Thailand’s 27th Prime Minister last Dec 15, the British-born leader of the Democrat Party was already engaging with CNN.

His first act as PM was to send SMS texts to millions of Thai mobile phone users, asking them to help solve the country’s crisis, signed off simply as “Your PM”.

Since then, he’s granted countless interviews both at home and during overseas trips in attempts to reposition his fragile premiership.

And over the past week, Abhisit (pronounced as A-phi-sit Wet-cha-chi-wa in Thai) was doing just that – granting two interviews to the Star – in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur in a space of 48 hours!

The first took place at the Impact Muangthong Convention Centre in the outskirts of the busy Thai capital last Saturday, followed by another at the posh JW Marriot Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.

And here’s a quick take on the Thai PM – “patient, reasonable, articulate and unambiguous”. And yes, incredibly smart. Many cite that as the Oxford-trained Abhisit’s chief “qualification” to lead his country.

“Prime Minister, thank you for seeing me again,’’ I say to Abhisit who approaches with a smile, offering a handshake.

“It’s a pleasure,” he replies, as his top aides watch at the private suite of the luxury hotel here.

The strain of the two-hour long talks he held with his Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Najib Razak in Putrajaya and dissecting issues with the Thai business, student and working communities here hardly show in his face.

There are deep political differences in Thailand but the Thai public (political pundits included) is united in commending Abhisit for what they say is his “lor yai” (handsome in Thai) looks.

The photogenic leader and heartthrob Thai figure does not mind a little chat before we take our seats, a striking testament of his patient ways.

During the first interview in Bangkok, Abhisit waited for some time as a TV crew struggled to get their equipment ready to record the interview.

He wasn’t miffed, but asked softly: “Is it about your equipment, or mine?” as he checked the mini microphone pinned on his suit.

When informed that the problem was with the TV cameras, he shot back in jest: “Oh, then I am powerless!”

There was more time for light-hearted banter as the cameras waited to roll. “You don’t look your age, Prime Minister.” He responds: “I am about 44 ... 45. Don’t worry, I’m catching up fast!”

Khun (the polite Thai way to say Mr) Abhisit may be no powerful orator, but dour he’s not when he gets the chance to speak about his people and country.

He looks sombre in his dark blue suit (and comfortable in black strap shoes), but the responses come through clear and confident as the embattled PM projects a calm front.

“We’re doing what we can for the (Thai) people. We want to make sure that things are on track,’’ he says, the courage evident in his eyes.

It’s almost six months since he took over the helms of Government House (where the PM’s Office is located in Bangkok) after a Constitutional Court banned three government parties for election fraud, paving the way for a Democrat-led Government.

The violent protests that followed led to the embarrassing closure of the Suvarnabhumi International Airport, cancellation of an Asean Leaders meet in Pattaya, and declaration of an emergency in Bangkok.

The mobs were also trying to get to Abhisit, who has escaped from armed protesters on more than one occasion.

“There was no question that my life was seriously threatened,’’ he says.

The work he has done so far only represents the foothills of change but the young PM (he is not the youngest PM in Thai history, that credit goes to Seni Pramoj who took office at the age of 40 in 1945) is desperate to get things going.

The hardest is yet to come, and the intellectual Abhisit, born in England to wealthy Thai-Chinese parents who were both medical professors, knows it.

“It’s going to be tough, but not impossible to overcome,’’ the Opposition Leader-turned-Prime Minister says when asked about the enormous tasks ahead.

Top on his agenda is to steer Thailand’s once mighty, now faltering, economy back on track.

The picture is grim – the Thai National Economic and Social Development Board (NSEB) has forecast a rather shallow 3.5% negative growth for the year as a whole.

Exports are down 20%, investments by 15.8% and the tourism industry hit by 100 billion baht.

Adding to this, Abhisit faces deep divisions between the elite middle-class that backs him and the rural poor who are throwing their lot behind former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from office in a military coup in September 2006 sparking off the Red Shirts vs Yellow Shirts tug-of-war.

These are tough times indeed for the kingdom but the slightly-built Abhisit, described as a “what works” politician among admirers, is taking it in his good-natured stride.

He proposes a “colour change” to heal the wounds and unite the country: “To my knowledge red and yellow makes orange. And orange stands for innovation.

“And I think innovation is what we need, to find a way out of the political problems over the past few years.

“If the Red Shirts feel that the constitution should be more democratic, I can agree with them. If the Yellow Shirts feel that there isn’t much accountability in government, I can agree with them too.”

Colour choices aside, political foes are asking: “Is Abhisit the right man for Thailand?” “Does he know how to fix the issues that are of concern to Thais?”

The people are responding, quite positively. An opinion survey conducted by Assumption University in 17 provinces (including Bangkok) last month showed 70% of the respondents ticking Abhisit for best performance among top 10 Cabinet members polled.

The PM, who is well-liked for his moralistic stand on issues, opens up when asked how he plans to use this to his advantage.

“We need to protect the most vulnerable. We have put in place a comprehensive public investment programme with the aim of creating up to two million jobs,’’ reveals Abhisit, who is advocating free healthcare, a higher minimum wage, free education, and milk for nursery-schoolchildren.

He draws comparisons with Malaysia. “But as an open economy, maybe not as open as Malaysia’s, we can’t avoid the consequences of a global downturn.

“We cannot really expect to have a strong recovery until the global economy recovers,” reasons Abhisit who was educated at Eton College, one of Britain’s top private schools, before studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University.

Critics constantly hound him over his ascension to Thailand’s top job not having been endorsed at the ballot box.

(As leader of the Democrat party since 2005, his party has failed to win either of the elections contended).

“Of course we are!’’ he retorts when I ask him if his Democratic Party-led coalition government was one “by the people”.

“Because I have been elected by a majority of parliamentarians who have been elected by the people,’’ he counters to the charge of him leading a disreputable government.

His many Malaysian friends include Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, who started his political career about the same time as Abhisit. The minister had to be in Kota Kinabalu and tried his best to catch up with Abhisit at the KLIA but their schedules stood in the way.

Hishamuddin gives his own take on Abhisit: “He is very articulate, sincere and humble, and is someone I truly respect. It is unfortunate that he is leading Thailand in such a trying time. He has genuine views about Malaysia and is certainly someone we can work with.”

As a protégé of former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Abhisit learnt many valuable lessons about politics knowing that one day he could be a national leader.

It was Chuan, the former Democratic Party leader who was PM from 1992-1995 and 1997-2001, who opened the party’s door to Abhisit, who is said to have wanted to be a politician since he was 10!

The skills of Thailand’s fresh, new hope as a national leader will be tested to the brim in the period ahead.

“I welcome the competition … as long as it’s for the good of the people and country,’’ he concludes.

Fact File

Born: Aug 3, 1964

Personal: Married to Asst Prof Dr Pimpen Sakuntabhai, lecturer at the Faculty of Science Department of Mathematics, Chulalongkorn University; children Prang and Pannasit.

Highest qualification: Master of Philosophy (M. Phil) in Economics, Oxford University, UK.

Career: Politician

Noteworthy: One of the youngest MPs, youngest Thai PM in decades

Favourite food: Krapao (stir-fried meat with basil leaves)

Favourite place: Newcastle

Hobby: Reading

Values: Honesty and integrity

Inspiration: Former Thai PM Chuan Leekpai

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