This interview was from October 2016 when I sat down with Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of the Bhumjaithai Party. What you find below is a summary of the hour-long conversation we had on Thai politics two and a half years ago.
Working with those who think differently – Accept and respect all ideas. Back off if yours is not as good as someone else’s. Debate and see which idea reaches a dead-end first. In a democracy, majority rules.
On getting rid of corruption – When a politician is taking extra money, it’s like Robin Hood because the salary from being an MP is not enough to pay for the cost of maintaining their popularity. Raise the pay. Give the MPs a surviving salary. The money we will use to raise this pay is a lot less than the money that has been lost in the system.
The root cause of corruption – The reason why Thailand has become what it is today is because of poor education. Poor education makes people willing to sell their vote. Poor education makes people have less integrity. Poor education makes people ruthless. Poor education makes people selfish.
Background: Anutin Charnvirakul
After studying industrial engineering at Hofstra University in New York, Anutin worked for a while in the US before returning to Thailand to run one of the family’s businesses Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction Public Company Limited (STEC TB). The Charnvirakul family’s other large business is the fabricator STP&I Public Company Limited (STPI TB).
In politics, Anutin has served as Deputy Minister of Public Health and Deputy Minister of Commerce. In 2007, he was one of 111 Thai Rak Thai Party executives banned from politics for five years. He partnered with Newin Chidchob to establish the Bhumjaithai Party, and in 2012 he took over the party leadership.
Democracy in Thailand: The best ideas should win
Is it important in a democracy to accept people who think differently than you do?
Anutin: In a democracy, it’s critically important that you accept all people’s ideas and approaches. Democracy means: “whoever has the better reasons, wins.” And if the reasons are all legitimate, the one reason that appeals more or sells more to the people will win.
I think democracy has to welcome ideas, thoughts, and methods from all the parties.
So one has to let go or compromise?
Anutin: If you’re talking about democracy, people have to obey the rules, which is the majority. If you’re talking about authority, people with the higher authority will make the rules. If people abide by the rules and are rational, they will have to accept it, one way or the other.
If I had the higher authority and people had ideas that reached the target, whereas my idea faces a dead-end, I would always respect their idea. Some people will force their idea because of stubbornness, but I am a result-oriented person and not the boss-is-always-right type.
How does voting fit into your idea of democracy, and what alternative voting structures may improve Thailand’s democracy?
Anutin: Our democracy system has to come through votes. Political parties are formed to sell their policies to gain popularity with the people. If the policy captures the people’s minds, then the people will work for you. So the democratic system has no other choice but to get voted by the people.
How does a country protect itself from politicians just giving people what they want, but those things may not be good for the future of the country?
Anutin: The first requirement is education. People from outside Thailand or people who oppose democracy will always blame the voters for selling their votes for money. It’s not true. The policy of each party is the major factor for winning the election.
The role of the constitution: Independent agencies have brought instability
What role should a constitution play in Thailand? What needs to be changed in this constitution to make it better for the long run?
Anutin: The constitution has always been the supreme law of Thailand. Thailand never had such a problem like this before the 1997 Constitution. Like it or not, there weren’t as many independent agencies as there are today.
Thailand was much more stable, and the system balanced itself. I never saw any political party in the past that controlled the election because of it being in government. If they did not do well or if they did not perform, they could come back in the next election.
Probably because of the excessive needs of the people of Thailand who’ve always had a negative perception of politicians, they try to find a controlling method to prevent vote-buying or to prevent inappropriate methods of coming to power.
You’re saying that the objective of the 1997 Constitution was to introduce independent bodies that would keep the politicians in check, but it didn’t work that way.
Anutin: It didn’t work that way.
Continuing on the constitution, besides independent bodies, is there anything else that needs to be changed?
Anutin: When we call ourselves a “democracy,” whatever the people decide regardless of why they voted as they did, everyone has to respect it. Votes are gained either through money or power.
In the first world, creating good policies is another kind of vote-buying. The fundamental thing is that you have to respect the voice of the people.
Corruption and politics: Not a one-sided issue
Regarding corruption and politics, how can we increase transparency and reduce the influence of money in politics?
Anutin: When you say “corruption,” don’t only blame the government side. You have to point the finger at the government’s counterpart. When there is no offer, there is no take.
Government regulations are fair enough to create fair competition. But people who want to have a better deal make a better offer.
If you believe in the supply and demand concept, you all enter into a fair competition through a tendering process and make a vow among your counterparts that corruption in the end kills. No one can survive alone.
I don’t really like my answer on this, but I feel that the question is very difficult.
Corruption comes from favoritism. When you’re in a certain position, you cannot favor any party.
Yes, but the way corruption is at this time is that a person uses his power and wealth and influence to get voted in; and then, he has an obligation to, now, distribute what he’s got to the voters or to the people who have helped him.
Ultimately, that’s politics. I’m going to vote the guy in who represents me, and my representative goes to the national government. He brings his voters the benefit of getting their road built in their district.
That’s pure politics. And if one MP from one region is better at getting benefits from the national government for their district, then voters would naturally vote for him.
But that’s not how it happens all the time.
Anutin: No, this is happening. Currently, this is happening. Every MP has a certain authority to bring wellbeing to his constituents.
Right. They have an obligation.
Anutin: This applies for all. The corruption part comes to the point that the MP brings work to his district, and then he takes money from his contractor who was selected to do that work. Even worse than that, is when that MP does not bring work to his home province. He has been allocated with a certain budget each year, say 50 million baht—this is the real system now—to bring to his home, to his district. But he waives that right and sells this right to the other MPs in a different constituency.
This is real life. This is why the country is kaput.
All MPs in Thailand will first have to favor their constituencies, their voters. No matter how rich you are, you cannot favor people only by giving cash. But if you are a wealthy and a more powerful MP, you have enough in your portfolio to buy other people’s rights; and when they are sold, they will be sold to the highest bidder. That’s why the system itself has fallen off the tracks.
Battling corruption: Raise the pay of MPs
So maybe the better question is, how do we reduce corruption in politics?
Anutin: Favoritism has been in the Thai’s people’s minds. But in the past, they favored people by their hearts. Now, this favoritism has a commercial value.
So with the example that I just brought up, all you need to do is simply say, “The budget allocated to one MP’s district is not transferable.” But I cannot understand why no one ever came up with that.
We should say, “To improve corruption and increase transparency those benefits cannot be transferred.”
Anutin: That’s one step. That addresses the first level of corruption. The second level is you can go to the contractor and say, “If you want to come to work in my constituency, you cannot make corrupt payments.”
So it’s greed? When that politician is taking that additional money, is it for them, for their house or is it for them to support their existence?
Anutin: It’s like Robin Hood because the salary from being an MP is not enough to pay for the cost of maintaining their popularity.
Singapore pays a very good salary and says, “If anybody engages in corruption despite making two hundred to five hundred thousand dollars in salary per year for being an MP, you’re going to go to jail.”
Anutin: Going to jail is already supposed to happen. Anybody who is charged with corruption; after the trial, he always goes to jail.
But you could easily argue that Thai jails aren’t filled with politicians.
Anutin: Because we can’t catch them yet. The thing to do is to raise the pay. Yes. I believe that the money we will use to raise this pay is a lot less than the money that has been lost in the system.
Youth in politics: They need patience
For citizens, how do we encourage more young and honest people to enter politics?
Anutin: Coincidentally, I just mentioned that the constitution would have to promote all competent people who are willing to serve the country, give them enough protection, and give them fair competition to enter.
Let’s break this down. On the one side, you have wealthy people who want to enter politics, but it’s just too much personal information that they have to reveal and too much trouble that they could get into. I understand that.
But there are also quality young people who have beliefs. They could be good, honest people in politics. These people are involved in protests and demanding change. However, when it comes time for them to run to be an MP so that you can influence the political environment, they don’t do it.
How do we bridge that gap and get them into government to set policies?
Anutin: They’ve got to have patience. All the people who claim that they are already successful and they want to serve their first term of entering politics as a policymaker, they don’t have enough patience.
Judiciary: Justice must be blind
Let’s talk about laws and justice. What needs to be done to ensure a fair justice system for all in Thailand?
Anutin: Fair justice for all! The answer is in the question. Today, it is not fair justice for all.
So what needs to be done? How do we achieve that? Why don’t we have it? And what’s the key to how we get closer to that. You’re never going to be perfect…
Anutin: The people involved are supposed to remain fair and neutral, but they don’t do that. They take sides. Prejudice—they’re putting personal feelings into their duty. You’ve got to be neutral. This has never happened in the past. This just happened recently when the people who have to give judgment don’t stay neutral in their duties.
Education: Improvements are needed to improve democracy
Let’s talk about the objective of education and how we could improve education. Is education an important factor or not?
Anutin: We have to make people who are successful students, those who are brainy, to not only focus on being a successful businessperson, not only focus on being rich after graduation. They should believe that we are not the only generation who lives in this country. They should pass on their greatness to other people.
In Thailand, it’s the opposite way. People who score last in their class become teachers. People who are top in their class go to whatever field they want to be in except teaching.
Isn’t that everywhere? Isn’t that also in the U.S.?
Anutin: I think, in the U.S., people dream of being researchers and professors. When they succeed, they teach. It’s not only in the U.S. but in the First World.
But the irony is that teachers have much more respect in Thailand than they do elsewhere. Are you telling me that if respect were based upon competence and all that, then, they would get less?
Anutin: Based upon tradition, based upon religious beliefs, in Thailand a teacher is as highly regarded as the parents.
So how do we fix this? Thinking about it in terms of democracy, how do we improve our education to make a better democracy?
Anutin: People who graduate from education degree programs have the highest numbers. This year (2016), more than 80,000 people graduated with an education major. We have too many teachers but of lesser quality. They don’t make enough money. If they have nowhere to go, they become teachers with the least pay; and they don’t teach well.
Thailand tries to be global with education. Now, in many places even in the provincial areas, they try to follow international standards, but the infrastructure available in the country is not supportive.
Most of the people in the provinces cannot access the Internet. And we just assume it’s ok to give them a tablet computer. Each year, the Ministry of Education procures computers made in China and sends them to all the community schools, where with only one usage they become trash.
I think that to improve, the government leaders have to be alert that the reason why Thailand has become what it is today is because of poor education. Poor education makes people sell their vote. Poor education makes people have less integrity. Poor education makes people ruthless. Poor education makes people selfish.
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