Politician by Accident
Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun
Thailand Executive Profile
On March 2, Cambridge-educated
diplomat-turned-businessman, Khun Anand Panyarachun, was sworn in as the country’s
18th Prime Minister since the introduction of the constitutional monarchy
in 1932. Eight days earlier, on February 23, Thailand’s first elected Prime Minister,
Chatichai Choonhavan, had been overthrown by the Army in a blood-less coup. The
interim National Peacekeeping Council cited several reasons for staging the coup,
ranging from alleged Government corruption to choking traffic conditions in Bangkok.
Midway through his term in office, 59-year old Prime Minister Anand talks to Simon
Thurlow about his sudden emergence into the spotlight, and outlines what still
has to be done before general elections are held next year.
just have to face the fact that I’m not an elected representative. If I should
hurt some people’s feelings and disappoint some people, then all I can really
do is just apologise, but I did not appoint myself, that’s one thing. Secondly,
when they decided to offer me the position, I took account of the fact that I
was not involved in any manner, or way with the extra-legal means of the transfer
“It’s not for me to pass a value
judgement on the actions that they took-perhaps they had good reasons, but I think
that when certain doors had been opened, they showed a certain degree of sincerity
in their actions. They had demonstrated an acceptable degree of genuine intention,
to put Thailand back on the right course.”
Prime Minister jokes that when he finally acceded to the requests of the Army’s
National Peacekeeping Council to take the job, it was the result of a mental lapse.
is something for which my wife will never forgive me,” he says, laughing heartily.
am not a politician by profession, I’m not a politician by aspiration. I am a
politician by accident. I happen to be a man who is holding a political position
“I’ve spent 23 years in the
Foreign Service and 13 years in the private sector and though in the past I had
the opportunity of being recruited into the Cabinet, I always turned it down.
have gone on record that I’m not going to stand for election, and I do not believe
that public life is something that comes naturally. Well to some people it comes
naturally, but not to me.”
Why, then, did
he agree to become Prime Minister?
to deal with the situation after the seizure of power and if they (NPKC) decided
to offer the job to a civilian, then I rather thought that was a step forward,
a very positive step. All I hoped for was, at least, to be able to contribute
to this early restoration of the democratic regime in Thailand.
is my personal belief, my conviction, that there was a need to put the country
back on the course of stable and balanced rule. That would be part-and-parcel
of the early restoration of the democratic regime.
provides me with ample opportunities to do things as a concerned citizen of our
country, to do things that I believe to be right, to do things that I believe
to be in the long-term interests of the country.
because of the absence of an elected House of Representatives ….If I could galvanise
people, provide them with certain direction, policies, within a short period of
time, be it nine or 12 months, at least give the opportunities that most people
would want, but would not be able to make come true.”
of the main reasons cited by the military for the coup was the alleged corruption
of the Chatichai government. Prime Minister Anand explains his role in improving
the Government’s image.
“It’s very important
that I introduce new elements into the government of our country. I want, by the
time I leave my job, by the time our government is no longer there, Thai people
to look back and say that at least for a short period we had a clean, honest government.
This is not something, which is unique. Too many times in the past, people have
been disillusioned, I suppose people in any democracy become disillusioned with
politicians. You often get the case, in America, in all sorts of places, but that’s
a part of life.
“We know that we can at
least get the majority of the people who vote to accept our government and our
policies, our directions. I want, at least, to be a part of constructing the system,
which in future governments of Thailand will seem clean, transparent, to be accountable
for what they do.”
After only a few months
in his new job, Prime Minister Anand was faced with the potentially explosive
situation of having to resolve a multi-billion baht scheme initiated by his predecessors,
to privatise and expand Thailand’s telephone system.
protracted negotiations, a deal was struck, that broke what would have been a
monopoly, and which went against the wishes of a large army faction. The resolution
of the contract was hailed as a personal triumph for Prime Minister Anand, firstly
for being able to get things done, and secondly for being able to chart an independent
government courses. However, when pressed, he refuses to acknowledge any personal
“I think it’s the best deal out
of a bad situation. I had certain constraints, the fact that the agreement was
about to be signed before I come over. There was a definite moral agreement, a
moral commitment on the part of the government. I believe in the continuity of
governments, and I believe in the continuity of commitments given by the previous
government. Those commitments should never be allowed to lapse.
I had started from scratch, if I had a clean slate, perhaps this is not the way
that I would choose to privatise the telephone organisation. Or perhaps it is
not the most effective way of inviting the private sector’s participation in the
telephone services. Be that as it may, the concept had already been agreed on
by the previous government, and the contract was about to be signed, so I thought
that I should at least do my best to get the best agreement out of the concept.
I thought it was a deal that was acceptable both to the government and to the
people who were getting the concession.”
Minister Anand is acutely aware that his days in office are numbered. He jokes
about it often, but that does not diminish his strong belief in the continuity
of government, and the obligation to honour previous commitments, and especially
on a personal level.
“I have never regretted
it (taking the job). In all my life, once I made a decision, I stood by those
decisions. I don’t do anything half-heartedly. I have said that for me this is
an interim time. I am an interim Prime Minister of an interim government, but
I am anything but interim in what I do. I hope that my decisions of the past months,
things that have happened, procedures established, the systems, I hope that they
will last and not be reversed by the future government.”
Prime Minister’s handling of the telephone contract, illustrated these beliefs,
as do his current attempts to rationalise the shambles that has allowed as many
as five over-lapping schemes to be tabled, to help ease Bangkok’s chaotic traffic
“Any agreements that have been
signed by the Thai Government would have to be honoured by the future government,
that is a cardinal rule. Agreements that have not yet been signed will, of course,
be subject to review. Of the agreements that have already been signed, the way
we handle things is not to try to sabotage, to try to make it fail, but we had
to look more deeply into the question of physical planning and of the engineering
“We started with a handicap,
in the sense that we did not have a master plan for a mass transit system. We
merely responded to the projects, the proposals put up by the private sector.
Under normal circumstances, the best approach would have been to have our own
master plan and then to decide on the concept to be followed. Then, the private
sector could respond to the final concept that was chosen. That is not the case,
so, in those areas (transport) the Thai Government always had the bad habit of
reacting to specific proposals and projects. As a result, when it came down to
questions and negotiations, the Government was often in a dis-advantaged position,
because it had no way of controlling the procedure of the project itself.”
Minister Anand has appointed a special committee to try and unravel the mess,
which includes a multi-billion-dollar scheme of Hopewell’s Hong Kong magnate,
Gordon Wu, to build a mass-transit railway, but it will not be easy.
people who got involved in the deliberation process were from one agency, with
a vested interest. We believe that gives rise to corruption charges. It gave rise
to some decisions that were made inadvertently, and decisions that were not thoroughly
discussed and assessed. So I appointed a committee which includes all of the representatives
of the agencies concerned – the finance, the engineering, and the authorities
with their different projects. I hope that they can help iron out “the wrinkles”
that are bound to happen when four or five government agencies run separately
and uncoordinatedly and in isolation. So, “the name of the game” now is coordination,
so that the physical parts of all the projects are not in conflict with each other,
and that it would be physically feasible for all the projects to get off the ground.”
the past few years, Thailand has suffered from extremely bad press over its environmental
record, be it the deterioration of its beaches or the devastation of its natural
forests. Prime Minister Anand observes:
think that this government has perhaps done most in the environmental field, to
continue to generate public interest in the negative aspects of environmental
matters. We have taken quite a number of concrete measures to alleviate suffering,
our programme reducing the lead percentage in gasoline has been very successful
and of course there is more to come. We’re determined to bring in a higher degree
of private sector involvement in this national effort to protect the environment
in which we live.
“We have de-controlled,
de-regulated industries, commerce, and we expect that this de-controlling, this
de-regulation and also our tax reform package (a value- added tax is to be introduced)
would enable industry in Thailand to spend more money on waste treatment plants,
not polluting canals and rivers. We will also do our best to see to it that the
natural environment of the country, the forests, the rivers, would be least impaired
by the actions of the Government.
modernisation of the country, particularly Bangkok, to spread out. I have a dream,
a dream of my own, that instead of having all roads leading to Bangkok, I wish
that we could have all roads leading out of Bangkok to the provinces. That by
the time we leave, we will have set aside two or three plots of land in Bangkok
Prime Minister Anand accepts
that there are problems with the exploitation of the country’s forests.
will always be problems: one, if the law is not strong enough there is nothing
one can do, and secondly, if the law is strong enough, then the people who are
trying to enforce the law are not honest. Perhaps 80 years ago, 80 per cent of
the land area was covered in forest. Now it’s down to about 35 per cent, if not
20 per cent. That is a natural phenomenon. It has happed in every country, it’s
happening now in Brazil. It’s something that we do not like to see happen but
it has happened in every country.”
adds: “I think that the population of Thailand in my younger days was 23 million
people. That was only 30 to 40 years ago and now we have a population of 56 million.
As a result, we have 30 million more people, particularly in the agricultural
sector. They need land, each family needs land. Where do they get it from? We
get it from the public forests”.
economy over the past few years has expanded to such a rate that it has earned
the tag of “fastest-growing country in the world”. Inevitably, however, there
has been a slow-down in line with the world-wide trend and the after-math of the
Gulf War. Prime Minister Anand is not overly concerned.
you regard eight to nine per cent growth this year, it is not a slump, it is a
drop from twelve or thirteen per cent growth. Everything is relative. In a way,
I think it was partly designed by the Government, because I don’t think that any
country of our size and our level of development could sustain 12 per cent average
growth every year, as four or five years in the past. I think it’s very important
that we slow down the growth intentionally, and we view it as a pause. By the
time we think we could go ahead with “full steam” again, at least supporting facilities,
be they infrastructure, be they technical personnel, be they anything, these factors
will be ready.
“For example, the real-estate
sector has been growing at the rate of 60 and 70 per cent in the past three to
four years and you cannot go on at that rate because it is a kind of “runaway
train”. You have to just slow it down so that it will not get “off the track”.
The money supply in the past has been slightly too large, so I think we had to
take control of the situation. Financially, we’re much better off than we were
four of five years ago, or eight, or nine when there was a sort of slump, a recession
“Now the foreign exchange
reserve is up to about US$17 billion. If you look back eight or nine years ago,
we only had about US$2 billion. This US$17 billion covers about five-and-a half
months of imports and the baht is quite stable. I think confidence in Thailand
is to continue judging by the in-flow of capital from abroad. Of course, the position
has changed slightly, there is now less in-flow from equity and more in-flow from
short-term loans. I am sure that picture will be corrected quite soon.”
Thailand becomes a financial centre in Southeast Asia?
what we hope for,” says Prime Minister Anand with a chuckle, “that’s what we hope
for, I think it’s going to come about in spite of the Thai Government. If you
look at the map, Thailand, although not geographically so, is right in the middle
of the Asean area, and with the opening up of the economies of Laos and Cambodia
and Vietnam in particular, and also Burma, I can visualise it in 10 years time.
Thailand will just be the hub of activities on a regional scale. Our banks are
fairly active now in these areas. I can see a much larger market in the future,
so I think that the economies are complementary and, of course, being more advanced
in terms of banking, in terms of trade, in terms of industry, all of these Indo-China
states will be naturally drawn into our orbit. I don’t say that within a big power
sort of attitude, but I think it is inevitable. Of course, on top of that, we’ve
developed very good relations with our neighbours, politically and economically.
The security factor is no longer a factor in the present scheme of things. Previously
it would hinder any kind of movement in that direction, but now it’s irrelevant.”
year’s break-through in talks, hosted by Thailand, on a resolution of the fighting
in Cambodia has enhanced Thailand’s position as a regional force and power broker.
problem has been with us for over a decade, there was a stalemate, there was a
deadlock, each side thought, rightly or wrongly, that time was on their side.
We just pointed out that time was on nobody’s side and that, if the stalemate
were allowed to be prolonged, there was the likelihood that the Cambodian problem
would no longer figure on the international agenda, including that of Thailand.
With the trend around the world towards negotiation, compromise and pragmatic
solutions to problems, the Cambodians themselves had to make up their minds. Whether
to go with the rest of the world, whether they could afford to “dilly-dally” and
argue on procedural points, or argue on such tiny points which, in fact, had no
real practical meaning.
“I give a lot
of credit to the four factions, I think also that the major interested parties
involved, like Thailand, contributed to the process, to the negotiating process,”
what, then, is the future regional role for Thailand?
God, this cabinet has only six months to go, we’ll do our best in that time,”
says Prime Minister Anand, laughing strongly.
only a small country, so we’re not that ambitious, at least this Government is
not that ambitious. We have to work within the time limits, but perhaps the future
Government can take a greater role. I think that whatever we do, we have to recognize
our limitation, our own constraints. We’re not a major power – we are a sizeable
power within the region, but that’s it. Period.”
through his term, the Prime Minister reflects on his time at the helm of the country.
enjoy the work I’m doing, I enjoy the job but I do not enjoy the position of being
Prime Minister. In a way I am a rather private man, I cherish my own private time,
I cherish my own private life. In the political arena you have to stand in front
of the public every day, every hour. All of your words, all of your deeds are
scrutinised and assessed. Sometimes there’s a lot of character assassination.
It’s not that I am not in a position to answer all of these accusations, all of
these slanders and 'what-not', but it’s not my 'cup of tea.'”
what does Khun Anand look forward to when he retires?
holiday, a part-time job and not having to give interviews,” he says, grinning
broadly, “signifying, most politely, that the interview was over.”