Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Monday gave a keynote speech at the annual dinner of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bangkok. The Thai premier had once again met with FCCT members and guests after 14 months, and this year’s speech of his seems to have reflected a lot of things, not only in relation to what have been going on and what will be happening in Thailand but also, of course, what the Oxford-educated prime minister of Thailand is thinking now.
Here is the transcript of PM Abhisit’s keynote speech we would like you readers to read between the lines.
President of the FCCT,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, allow me a brief moment to express my deepest sympathy and condolences to our Japanese friends on what they have been through as the result of the devastating earthquake and tsunami on Friday the 11th of March. Japan has long been a good friend of Thailand and has always helped us when problems strike. She has shown her commitments to Thailand, especially in terms of trade and investment, through good and bad times. And, we also recall that when we were hit by the tsunami the Japanese government and the people gave us full support. So let me at this stage again show our concern and consideration to our Japanese friends and wish them the best so that they can overcome the current crisis.
It has always been a pleasure for me to come and meet members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand although admittedly it was a greater pleasure when I was in the Opposition. And I’m sure that over the last couple of years, you always asked yourself in your mind is this guy going to be back next year? Well, this year is no different. You will be wondering whether I will be here next year. I’m wondering too. But the people of Thailand will decide through the ballot box whether I should be here next year. And I remember last year when I was here, I said that it was a good rehearsal for the censure motion. This year is the reverse. I had a good rehearsal for tonight from last week’s four day grilling.
But the point that I would like to make tonight is that it is time for Thailand to move forward. We’ve been through so much over the last two years during my tenure, and a few years before that even through the turbulence and the political challenges. But at least over the last couple of years, they have had a government that has been determined to remain focused on moving the country forward, steering the economy through one of the severest global financial crises that we have witnessed in recent or even in modern times, and also to face up to the political challenges whereby when we assumed office there was hardly a functioning government. And we have steered the country and the political system over this last couple of years through enormous and unprecedented challenges.
There are times and events where we have all regretted what had happened, particularly the loss of people’s lives, but it was our job, first and foremost, to ensure that there was a rule of law; and that we exercise the utmost restraint, tolerance and patience, and try to move the country though these difficult times, at the same time, remaining focused on what really matters to the majority of Thais — which is that their lives should be improved. And we’ve done that as well.
It is not just about the macroeconomic numbers that you see today where we move from a 2.3 percent contraction of the economy to 7.8 percent registered last year; or the numbers that now say we have the highest number of tourists and exports, revenues record high still expanding at the very healthy rate; or the fact that we have been able to keep fiscal and monetary stability despite the scale of the financial crisis that hit the global economy. The ability to keep the debt GDP ratio which is now currently at 41-42 percent and declining and, of course, keeping unemployment relatively low, well actually, by international standard it would be very low, to around 1 percent or below. These things matter, these things help, but there are a number of policies that we actively pursue despite the turbulences.
Free basic education for 15 years, so that families are now comfortable by having their kids in school, where there would be no tuition fees, and they would get uniforms and supplies and books for their children. Two years ago a lot of families would still have set aside a fair bit of their income for the elderly. Today, at least, they get the 500 baht a month support — not nearly enough but very meaningful to a majority of poor families, especially in the rural areas.
Two years ago, farmers always faced uncertainties, about the weather, about prices, and now farmers who make the majority of the population enjoy the income guarantee programme if they grow rice, if they grow maize, if they grow tapioca — which is for the first time led to increased security in their lives. And one of the numbers that has not been mentioned much but it has been meaningful to me and those who have worked with me is the increase in the amount of money in their bank account with the bank for agriculture and agriculture cooperatives. The deposit per account has increased on average 10 percent for the last couple of years, suggesting that they actually have an opportunity to be savers rather than being so in debt.
And there are also a number of other initiatives that we have already undertaken which will go further to create a kind of security for our people’s lives. And also, a number of measures that have reached out to those people who have always been left behind, classified often as people in the informal sector. We have already run a successful programme for a lot of people who have been in debt to loan sharks, paying incredible interest rates, their lives being threatened having to repay these debts. And we have already helped 400,000 people to actually convert those debts or loans to bank loans — in the process, actually creating good customers for these banks as well. And we will do a second round registration for that very soon.
We are now in the process of registering people outside the social security system, because they have no employers. Now they are given a chance to contribute 70 baht and 100 baht per month, and the government will make contributions of 30 baht and 50 baht, and they will enjoy the benefits of those in the social security system. That can reach out to as many people as many as maybe 20 million who have been left out all a long in the development process. So these are the actions, these are the things that we have done and we will continue to do.
In Bangkok, special pilot projects are on their way about registering motorcycle taxis. Street vendors will be able to see their goods legally and they will also have access to loans from government banks. These are the kinds of things that we have been able to achieve beyond the headlines and despite all the challenges and turbulence that we have been through over these two and a half years. But the Thai people still deserve more, and despite the fact that we have moved on from the economic crisis, the Thai people are now faced new challenges. Rise in prices, a cost of livings going up, and it may be a global phenomenon but all they know is that they have to make ends meet.
At the same time, there are some structural or long term problems that continue needing to be solved — drugs, even the situation in the south, where we have changed our policy stance clearly and we believe we are on the right track, but the problems are still there and they need to be handled in a consistent and continuous manner.
That’s why I decided it was a good time for the people to decide on the direction of the country, since the scenario now changes we have got new challenges, it would be good for them to have a choice. Do they want to move forward with the policies that we have initiated and that we will build on — the “People’s Policies” — or do they want to stay in this cycle of conflict and violence? Do they want the government that would continue to put their interest first? Or do they want people who are still tied to one person’s interest and wouldn’t allow the country and the Thai people to move beyond that? That is the choice that would be facing the Thai electorate, maybe the end of June or, at the latest, it will be in July.
And, for me, as the Democrat Party leader, we have already been cleared about what we want to continue to do. We recognize that the number one priority now is to help people fight high prices. And while we will continue with some of the subsidies that we have put in place, for instance, for cooking gas, for diesel, we also recognize that we cannot subsidize everything or put a control on all prices and the only way to fight that is to make sure that the incomes, the money in their pockets, increase, which is why we have made a commitment that we’d like to see the minimum wage increased by 25 percent within the next two years. It is something that these people deserve. It is also something that I think that the Thai economy deserves — a stronger domestic economy, a fairer economy, and one that will allow prices and wages to move up according to the stage of development of the country.
We will increase and improve upon the income guarantee for farmers since their costs have increased and I think they deserve a higher rate of return as well on what they do because we want to continue to move forward with the revival of our agricultural sector, and also make sure that there is something that we can contribute to as far as food security is concerned not just for this country but for the region and the world.
We are also going to extend opportunities for our children. Fifteen-year free basic education is not enough. So many families, so many parents aspire to have their children going on to higher education. We will make available more loans for higher education students. 250,000 is the right number that we think need to fill that gap between all those applicants each year who get turned down by the student’s loan office. We will also continue with our policy to give community land titles so that a number of communities will enjoy the kind of security that has eluded them for so long.
And we will also strengthen police force and the personnel to deal with the problem of drugs, which clearly is a threat to families, to communities and to the country as a whole. At the same time the approach we have taken towards the southern border provinces, where we say that development and justice must be the key to achieve lasting peace, will also continue. We will build on the new legislation that we have passed where the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center has now become more unified in its command structure and also will allow the participation of local people in the advisory board and its policy making.
At the same time, as the election allows Thailand to move forward we will also be able to contribute more at the international level. During Thailand’s chairmanship, we made a commitment for ASEAN to move into an economic community by the year 2015. And last year we suggested connectivity as the key policy priority for the whole of ASEAN. And we will also of course engage in a number of infrastructure investments to make that connectivity happen like the high-speed rail and the upgrading of roads network that will allow Thailand to become the hub of what I call mainland Southeast Asia. And we can pursue further liberalization agenda with free trade agreements with all the ASEAN and ASEAN Dialogue Partners and even beyond.
And of course there are other issues that we will also hope we can better handle, for instance, dealing with corruption, where we are in the process of improving upon a number of key areas in terms of civil service transfer and promotion system, and the procurement system that needs to be revamped to prevent corruption.
These are all issues that have mattered to the Thai people all along. Some of these have been addressed over the last couple of years, but there is much more to do, and we want the Thai people to give that mandate for us to move forward. And I hope that by the time next year’s FCCT dinner arrives I should be here to report further progress on delivering the “People’s Policies” for the benefits of the Thai people and Thailand. Thank you.