ADVOCATE: The Future of Democracy in Thailand with Kasit Piromya


ADVOCATE: The Future of Democracy in Thailand with Kasit Piromya

You’re now listening to “Advocate” by APHR, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. APHR is a network of current and former parliamentarians from Southeast Asia who use their unique position to advance human rights and democracy in the region. Hello, I’m Karina Tehusijarana, Media Manager of APHR. I’ll be your host for today. And today we’ll be talking with APHR board member and former Thailand member of parliament, Kasit Piromya. Hi, Khun Kasit.

Hi, Sawadikap.

Kasit Piromya is a former Thai career diplomat and also a former activist for the People’s Alliance for Democracy, also known as the Yellow Shirts. He also served as Foreign Minister of Thailand from 2008 to 2011. Today we will talk with Khun Kasit about the future of democracy in Thailand, what’s inside the Thai parliament, the role of Thailand MP’s and Southeast Asian MP’s in advancing democracy and human rights in both Thailand and the region.

Kasit Piromya in New York, 2009. ©Ministry of Foreign Affair Thailand

Thank you for taking the time to be here with us, Khun Kasit. Before we go into more about the Thai political situation, maybe you could introduce yourself and a little bit about your background and how you first entered politics.

I was a career diplomat for 37 years since graduating from the university. And then I retired from diplomacy or from a civil servant about 17 years ago, around 2005. Then I became a political activist and then also concurrently a member of the Democrat Party of Thailand. And I did have some political positions as a member of parliament of the House of Representatives, as a Foreign Minister.

Then about in the year 2017, I left the Democrat Party and I stopped my political life and have devoted, I think the past ten years more to the work of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, more or less working for and regional NGO in the promotion and advocating democracy, human rights and participating politics and so on

 So my life has maybe can be divided into three phases. First, as a civil servant. Second, as a politician and political activist. And Third, now is more in the academic advocacy level within the context of the civil society organization and so on. That’s the first point.

Second, I am about to be 80 years old. So when I was born in 1944, Thailand was already a constitutional monarchy. The country ended the absolute monarchy in 1932 and opted for a constitutional democratic kingdom of Thailand. But for the past 91-92 years, we have been struggling with the democratization of the kingdom of Thailand up to this very minute.

So in that sense, democracy has not really taken root in the kingdom of Thailand because there are many forces struggling with one another and there has not been any consensus in the Thai political arena. We have the traditionalists, we have former members of the Communist Party, Socialist Party. We have Liberal Democrats, we have Nationalists, we have Populists and so on. All of these forces, I think, still interplay with one another. And Thailand still needs to come to a consensus of what type of a democratic society or not we’re going to be.

This is the situation so far. Thank you.

Joined the APHR

Thank you, Khun Kasit. And it’s very interesting to hear about your long and varied career. How did you first become interested or become aware of APHR?

I was introduced by one of the founders of APHR. I think before APHR, it was the ASEAN Parliamentary Caucus for Aung San Suu Kyi, for Myanmar’s democracy and so on. I think the former colleagues at that time were, I think, working very hard for the military government of Myanmar at that time to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to return democracy to Myanmar.

And I was, I think, invited to join by one of the founders, namely Kraisak Choonhavan, who also became an elected senate of the parliament of Thailand. And his father was at one time the prime minister of Thailand, General Chatichai Choonhavan. Mister Kraisak and I, we knew each other since our student days when we were in the United States. And we have been friends.

He passed away a few years ago, but he introduced me to APHR or to the ASEAN Caucus for Aung San Suu Kyi. And when he passed away, I more or less took over from him the Thailand side of the APHR activities. So that’s how I got involved in APHR.

Kraisak Choonhavan gave an interview with the Bangkok Post in 2015. ©Bangkok Post

APHR in Thailand

So you have been a member of APHR’s board for a few years now. And as you said, Thailand, there are a lot of challenges regarding the democratization and the human rights situation in Thailand. Can you explain a little bit about what APHR activities have been in Thailand in the past few years?

Well, I think, let’s go back a bit to recent history. I think by the turn of the, from the 19th to 20th century, political theories, political ideologies from the Western world started to come to the, to the shores of the kingdom of Thailand. You know, the ideas about liberalism, socialism, Marxism and communism, nationalism of Germany at that time and so on.

And at the same time, Thailand started to send students to study abroad, especially to Europe. And these students have, I think, experienced various political activities in different countries and so on. And when they returned to Thailand, they came back with a set of ideas with the, I think, intention to change the kingdom of Thailand, namely to change absolutism. And they succeeded in June 1932.

All of these former students of Thailand in the European universities and military academies and so on, staged the coup d’etat and ended the absolute monarchy. That was their common position. But deep in their heart, some were socialist oriented, some were communist oriented, some were ultra nationalist oriented, some were liberal democrats and so on. And they formed the new government of Thailand under the constitutional monarchy, under a sort of the democratic constitution.

And there were, I think, infightings, struggles for powers and all of this. And during the Cold War, I think with the support of the Americans and so on, Thailand turned more to the right with the military government joining the, I think the security alliances like the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and so on, to fight communism.

But the condition from the American side was that as long as you were a government that stood up against communism, it was all right. So we did have a successive number of military governments or semi military governments that was pro western and against communism. Then I think towards the end of the Cold War and all of this and so on, the export of democratic values started to come from Europe as well as from North America. And democracy has become the name of the game, I think, during the past 30 years. But democracy had to fight against the traditionalist background conservatism in the Thai kingdom and some leftist ideas and so on. It’s an ongoing, what you call infighting inside the Thai political arena to this very day, to this very moment.

In the midst of all this infighting, what efforts have you and APHR done to try and kind of support the democratization and improvement of human rights in Thailand?

One word is missing from your question. The political party, because I became a Member of the Democrat Party. So whether I wear the hat, okay, wore the hat of the Democrat party, or whether I also wore the head of APHR, in general, the two entities have been moving in the same direction, that is to promote and protect democracy and human rights in Thailand.

As a member of a political party, my role is inside the parliament and with the public at large. As a member of APHR, is to link the situation in Southeast Asia to the international community and vice versa, for everyone to know what’s going on inside the Southeast Asia subregion about the situation on democracy and human rights. So it’s two different roles.

One more or less as a Thai politician inside the Thai parliament, as a member of the political party. The second one as a citizen of the ASEAN community, fighting for the ASEAN citizens of about 650 million, for them to have democracy, freedom and human rights.

So I have been doing this dual role for the past, I think about 20 years since I left the civil servant, since I reached the age of retirement about 20 years ago. And my role in APHR as a board member, well, I cannot judge myself, but I think I have been very active when it comes to the joint statement, fact finding mission, research work, taking the position of the APHR to the international community as well as to the Thai community and so on. And, you know, trying to expound the ideas of democracy and human rights as much as possible within the Thai context and within the ASEAN community context and within the international community at large.

Thailand Legislative System

Thank you. Khun Kasit, you mentioned your role as a member of parliament and a politician for a few years. Could you maybe explain a bit about Thailand’s legislative system and what challenges there are navigating it as an MP?

I think we more or less try to copy the British parliamentary system. Okay. In terms of structure, we have the Upper House called the Senate, and then we have the Lower House called the House of Representatives.

And the members of the House of Representatives are also members of various political parties. And they each compete in the national elections to win the seat on what you call whoever gets the majority in the constituents. And in the House of Representatives, I think we have a mixed system. One is constituent based, altogether 400 seats. And the second one is proportional or political party based, 100 seats. So the Thai House of Representatives has 500 seats, 400 of which come from the constituents all over the country. And then the other hundred come from the proportional or from the political party system.

When I was a member of the House of Representatives under the Democrat party, I came from the proportional or from the party list. I did not win the seat inside the constituent. And so that’s the system in Thailand.

In the upper house or the Senate. I think it depends very much on the constitution. At one time, the members of the Senate had to be elected by the people. So it’s a direct representation. But the current Senate of the parliament of Thailand today was nominated by the military government that staged the coup d’etat about ten years ago.

But this present Senate will, its terms of office will end, I think, in the middle of next month, in the month of May. And there will be a new set of procedures to select or to elect the senators of about, I think, 200 of them.

The candidates have to represent a professional organization, about 18 professional organizations. The other two groups would be representative for the women’s group and the other one is the representative for the minority, especially the hill tribes in the northern part of Thailand. So there will not be a direct election of the senators, but a sort of a semi direct election of the senator.

The details and so on remain to be seen and so on, which is, at the moment, under the arrangements of the Election Commission of Thailand. But definitely we will have a new Senate that is not fully directly elected, but semi elected.

The Problem of Thailand’s Democracy

Under this current legislative system that Thailand has, what obstacles do you see, in like, are there for reforming, advocating for law reform and to, you know, reform laws to be more in accordance with international human rights principles? And also what, under the current system, how can CSOs best enter into the system the legislative process in order to advocate for these kinds of reforms?

Let us remind ourselves that in the parliamentary system, the most important entities are the political parties. The political parties are in between the ordinary people and the institution of authorities and power.

And what has been the problem of Thailand for the past 92 years of the attempt at the democratization processes of Thailand has been the failure of political parties to really become political parties of the people and playing by the rules of democracy.

So what was the problem? Or what has been the problem? In many of the, I think, developing countries and so on, political parties have become part of the political dynasties. So political parties in Thailand, for the most part, have not been representing the members or the people, but have been representing the vested interests, or sometimes they have been controlled by political dynasties. So it becomes a sort of vested interest group.

And once the political parties get into power, either in the government or in the parliament, they tend to, I think, respond to the vested interests of that political dynasty or vested interest group inside the party, and not to the interests of the people and of the society as a whole.

To take a case, the Pheu Thai Party, the main coalition government of Thailand, belongs to the Thaksin Shinawatra family and the other parties in the government, ,ost of them belong to a family or a group of families or even a big man, you know, big former general and so on. Very personalized indeed. And you could not find any sort of rational organization and ideology because it depends on that particular cult personality or it depends on the family that owns or controls the political parties.

Thaksin Shinawatra, accompanied by his daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, greets supporters and journalists upon his arrival at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, 22 August 2023. ©EPA-EFE/RUNGROJ YONGRIT

So in that sense, democracy in Thailand has been quite a failure or has been struggling back and forth and so on, because political parties have not become a rational democratic entity.

And we can compare this to many political parties in New Zealand, in Australia, in Japan, in South Korea, or even in Taiwan or even in India. I think political parties in Thailand are much less sophisticated and answer only to the political families or the political personality and not to the people and not to the members of the respective political parties.

We have to reform the political parties.

We have to make sure that political parties are political parties of the people and run on a democratic principle and not a sort of a company or a business entity of a particular family or of a particular vested interest group. That’s the first answer to your question.

Second, what can the civil society or the NGO do? Well, I think they have been, I think, very active lives among the Thai CSO’s and so on. But they are being quite in combat or circumvented by quite a strict NGO law and there is too much bureaucratic control of the life and the activities of the NGO’s. That’s the first point. And there have been, I think, struggles at the moment inside the Thai parliament to make the NGO laws more liberal and not more restrictive and security oriented. So it’s something that still has to, a struggle still has to go on.

Second, this is where political party can come in and to stand with the CSO and with the NGO, but not to be part of the conservative establishment of Thailand that would like to curtail the activities of the CSO and at the same time, the perception that CSO are the enemies of the political parties and the political establishment.

So there is a need for a very big change of mindset inside the Thai bureaucracy as well as inside the Thai major political parties.

And this is where APHR can come in, in order to enhance their knowledge of the Thai citizens and the ASEAN citizens and so on. That CSO and NGO are vital instruments of the democratization process. And they have to be uninhibited, they have to be free in their functions. They have to be a force to be reckoned with and to be accepted by the political establishment.

Political Parties Reform

Thank you, Khun Kasit. I’m very interested to hear about your opinions about the political parties in Thailand because I think that’s a challenge that other countries in the region also share. Like, for example, in Indonesia, a lot of the political parties are also the same. As you said, they’re family run, you know, and they don’t really have any coherent ideologies. I’m interested to hear what you think we can do to reform the political parties in Thailand, like, what steps you think. Because, of course, there’s always a little bit of a. I don’t know, like a vicious circle, right? Because, like, to reform political parties, you need to reform the law, but to reform the law, you need the political party’s support, you know. So I was interested to hear your ideas about that.

If you can work with a couple of international or regional foundations or think tanks and so on, in bringing about the civic and political education to the masses and to help them to understand what exactly are the roles and functions of political parties, how the political parties should be set up and so on.

You know, so this education is very important. But at the same time, I think, various institutions of the, of the government, Election commission can play a larger role in educating the people about political parties and political participation and democracy. And I think the academic world universities, Political science faculty should play a much more role, and the various think tanks and so on. I think you have CSIS in Indonesia and many other foundations.

We could work together to bring the knowledge about political parties and democratic participation to the people at large. And it has to be an ongoing process, because the social context changes, international context changes, and democratic practices have to adjust to the changing world and so on, you know. And so political education, civic and political education has to be a continuous process. 

And one could also have a discussion on how to, I think, beef up the knowledge, intelligence and the sense of responsibilities and the moral values of political candidates, as well as candidates for independent bodies like the, I think, audit committee, counter corruption and so on.

There should be a much stricter procedure to select the political candidates as well as the candidates for independent institutions. For example, in Indonesia, suddenly you have a son of the current president becoming a vice presidential candidate without much of the experiences and so on. And in Thailand, we see many sons and daughters of political families, suddenly they get ministerial posts or they even get to become Secretary General of their party or even Chairman of the party, without any experience, without going through the work experience, without going through the civic and political education.

You must have people of quality to assume public functions.

And in this sense, I could not help but to compare the meritocracy procedures of the Communist Party, of Vietnam or of China, because for anyone to get to the top level of the Communist Party or to the government and so on, everyone more or less had to go through political education school. They have to start from the bottom up, from the provinces, at the lower rank, and then show their mentality and they will be promoted and so on, before they get to the position in the big cities and finally to the capital, Beijing.

So that is something that we could learn from the Communist Party of China. But looking at the political parties in the democratic societies and so on, they are getting to be candidates because of family connections or because of wealth and money, without much practical experience in work and in life and so on.

For example, my prime minister today, He was not a politician, He did not belong to a political party. And then suddenly, from a business circle, a family business, he was picked to become the Prime Minister. He did not have to fight for his position. He was not a politician. And for the past seven or eight months, I could say that he has been making a fool of himself. Too much talk without much of the substance, that is not detrimental to him. It is detrimental to the dignity of the Thai Kingdom.

Current Thailand Constitution

Thank you very much, Khun Kasit, for your strong words. You mentioned earlier a bit about the current Thai constitution, which is one of the things that, for example, like under the constitution, the Senate, the current constitution, the Senate is not directly elected by the people. And it also has other provisions that I think you and I have spoken about a few times about how the constitution is basically a big obstacle to democratization in Thailand. Can you maybe explain a little bit to the constitution about the current Thai constitution to people who don’t already know about it?

The first point is that the Senate, until the 15 May, okay, next month, was nominated by the military establishment who staged the coup d’etat a few years back. The nominated, non elected Senate, until today or until 15 May, did have the power to also cast their vote for the Prime Minister candidates, together with the members of the elected House of Representatives.

So how can you have non elected senator have the power to elect a prime minister? That’s against every democratic principle. So that’s the first point.

Second, in the present constitution, it also set up a committee on national strategy. Again, the committee members, about 20 of them, were being nominated, selected and decided by the military establishment. And the constitution also stipulated that every government, when they come into power, they have to follow the findings and the recommendation of the National Strategic Committee.

How can it be, when this committee is nominated, appointed by the military government without any political experience? Most of them were former bureaucrats and so on.

So this National Strategy Committee is like a politburo of a one party system. How can they have the authority over political parties and their members of parliament who are being elected by the people? So how can you have an authoritarian entity to have the power over the people’s votes and so on? So that’s the second one.

Third, we have 77 provinces in Thailand, only Bangkok People of about 5 million are allowed to elect the governor of Bangkok. The rest of the country, the governors come from the Ministry of Interior. So there is a discrimination of treatment. The Bangkok people have a better privilege than the rest of the other 62 million people

Fourth, Thailand still needs to go all the way about decentralization of having every governor of every province elected, and the real factual transfer of power from the center to the periphery to the provinces. We could follow the Japanese example. We could even follow the Indonesian example. How do you decentralize and delegate most of the power from the center to the peripheries and so on, to allow for more participation by the people and for the people to decide about their everyday life by themselves, but not to be controlled by the central government, either from Bangkok, Tokyo or Jakarta and so on.

So these are some of the examples. The other one is the selection nomination of all the independent bodies, you know, the Constitutional Court, the audit committee, the office of the Ombudsman, the Anti Corruption Commission, the Election Commission. All of these were being nominated and selected and decided by the military establishment.

So they are, they have not come through the democratic roots. And most of the people that filled in all of these positions have civil servants background. They are not or they have not been political activists. They have not struggled for freedom, for human rights or democracy. They are just part of the very conservative bureaucracy, but they hold positions in a set of democratic institutions.

How can they act in a democratic manner when their mindset and their personal experiences and development had nothing to do with democracy but to toe the line of bureaucratic hierarchy? How can they serve the people? They don’t have the feeling for democracy and so on.

So these are some of the elements that must be done away with. And hopefully that we will have a new constitution that is really democratic.

And then we could look at the example of other kingdoms, you know, like Japan, even Malaysia, or all the democratic kingdoms of western Europe. There are so many examples that we can draw upon that I think are the provisions of their constitution to make Thailand a real democratic kingdom.

Constitutional Reform

Thank you, Khun Kasit. As you said, the constitution was drafted by the military establishment at the time, the military junta, and now, at least nominally, the current government is a civilian government. Do you see any prospect under the current government of this constitution being reformed?

Not much, because a lot of saying for the past seven, eight months and so on, you know, because they have been very slow, because the idea was to have a drafting assembly of about, say, 200 people. But this is seven, eight months already. The government is not really pushing. Okay, maybe they like the status quo.

But if I were to be them, I could have set up a drafting committee of about 30 people, you know, all the Thai experts, and let them finish the draft in three months. And then table it to the people for debates, for public hearing and all of this. So that’s one way of doing it. But to go through the process of having to set another drafting assembly, then it will take time and a lot of delay. That’s the first point.

Second, the government should come with a set of ideas. What in the present constitution that they do not like and what would be the elements in the new constitution that they would like to put in? I have mentioned some. Do they agree with me or do they disagree with me?

But so far they have been very mute indeed. Or maybe they are listening more to the military establishment or to the conservative establishment instead of acting as a sovereign democratic institution, political parties and so on. Are they true to that spirit or are they honest to themselves? Or they’re just happy to have this marriage of convenience and peaceful existence with the military establishment.

Advices to MPs

Given the current situation and the constraints that are, you know, with the political party being what they are and with the constitution, what advice would you give to, like, an individual MP in Thailand who, let’s say they want to advance human rights?

I don’t give advice to MPs because I think they don’t like to get advice. I think they have enough intelligence and so on. And if they have got into this democratic environment of Thailand, they should know the shortcomings. By themselves they should. They know quite damn well that the constitution is semi democratic or semi authoritarian. They have been living with the nominated Senate for the past seven, eight months and so on. They know the score and so on. So it’s for them, you know, to come out of their shells and take a stand. That’s the first point.

Second, for them to discuss inside their respective parties to come out with a position on the new constitution. That’s what they should have done. I don’t advise them, you know, and even if I were to advise them, they would not listen to me. Even my fellow members of APHR from Thailand, I don’t think that they would listen to people like me because we belong to the older generation. We are on the way out, we are not on the way in, and so on.

And their respective political parties could set up a public forum. But so far they have not done anything. So they have been delegating their responsibility by inaction and so on.

I am a bit displeased with all the MP’s inside the Thai parliament, regardless of which political parties and so on. They have not been active enough in the fight for democracy and in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Even in their own respective provinces, where they come from, they have not been working enough. I have not heard anything about the members of parliament along the Thai Myanmar border. Six, seven provinces of Thailand have come out to say anything about the atrocity of the military government in Myanmar. That’s a big disappointment. That is an illustration either of ignorance or the lack of responsibility or the human awareness or the sensibility about the suffering of fellow human beings across the border. I am critical of my MPs.

Regional Solidarity

No, thank you, Khun Kasit. I think, yes, it’s very important that the MP’s get this kind of frank criticism because it is sometimes. Yeah, disheartening to see, like you said, like not speaking up about Myanmar and not speaking. Speaking about human rights in the provinces. Maybe just. This is my last question for this podcast. APHR, as you know, was formed with the idea of creating, like, regional solidarity among MP’s in the region. What do you think southeast asian MP’s outside of Thailand can do to help create change in Thailand?

I think they could make comments inside their respective governments. They couldn’t have sent fact finding missions from their own political parties. They could take up the issue inside the ASEAN Inter Parliamentary Assembly base in Jakarta. That’s the gathering of all the asean political parties. You know, even the Communist Party of Laos and Vietnam do attend the session Inside the AIPA in Jakarta. 

So more voice coming out, exchanges, talking to one another whenever occasion arises. But I think we all have to have that common belief that we can change for the better, that ASEAN community can become a regional democratic entity and not a mixed lot of absolute monarchy in Brunei, one party system in Laos and Cambodia, one man rule in Laos and Vietnam, one man rule in Cambodia, and military government in Myanmar, semi military government in Thailand, one party state system in Singapore. You know, all of this, we got to talk to one another, and then we got to change that.

We should have democracy and let’s have a consensus and work together on this. And each of the political parties, each of the prime ministers and president of the ASEAN country must have the time to talk to one another. Would it be better for the dignity and the bargaining power of ASEAN that if all the whole of the ASEAN community become democratic.

But if we are half authoritarian, half military, half democratic, we cannot speak with one voice and we are not on the radar screen. And that idea about ASEAN Centrality is a joke and nothing else. Thank you.

Thank you very much, Khun Kasit, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

That was an episode of Advocate by APHR, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. Drop your ideas for podcast topics or interview subjects through and let us know what your thoughts are on this episode. Before we sign off, I would like to thank you for your support and for tuning in. I’m Karina Tehusijarana. See you soon.

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ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was founded in June 2013 with the objective of promoting democracy and human rights across Southeast Asia. Our founding members include many of the region's most progressive Members of Parliament (MPs), with a proven track record of human rights advocacy work.

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