Surin: Thailand must clean up its act

Thailand's political problems and a bureaucracy that allows those with ties to move up the ladder will cause the country disadvantages once the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is set up, says former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan.

He said since the political situation is the superstructure of development, the most effective and transparent governments will be more prepared, but Thailand has been struggling since 2001, and investors are expecting transparency, rule of law, discipline and good governance.

"It's a yo-yo. A few years ago, Thailand was a poster child for democracy and human rights. Indonesia had a military dictatorship and was an abuser of human rights. Now it's the other way around," Mr Surin told a dinner talk hosted by the British embassy.

Although Asean has non-interference principles, integration will demand that countries are more open to each other and that "your problem is my problem".

"They'll say: 'When are you going to stop fighting so we can get on with the work? Because if you go down, you'll drag us all down.' And we'll have to answer to the group," Mr Surin said.

He said members will be concerned about what's going on in Thailand once the AEC is established late next year.

"Thailand has not adopted the substance of democracy. We have elections, a parliament and political parties, but are they functioning by the norms of democracy? I think the past few months have taught us a lesson on this," he said.

Thailand has a problem with bureaucracy, which has become an extended family.

"It's not what you know in this country, it's who you know. Every institution is not on a merit system but based on political loyalty and family connections," Mr Surin said.

"A village boy won't make it in this system, because it's all closed up. That's not the way to run a country."

Malay-speaking Muslims in the South will have a tremendous opportunity in the Asean community, but there will be a challenge if there is an attempt to make them “behave, think and dress like Bangkok”.

Muslims account for about half of Asean's population, and the US and the EU will be interested in how this demographic will have a certain impact on the evolution of Asean, Mr Surin said.

"We shouldn't look at southern Muslims as affecting national unity but national assets creating a bridge for tourism and investment," he said.

"The most critical mistake was when we sent a general from Bangkok with no network, no experience in the South, no language [skills], no friends. Nothing. And he thought he knew the answer to all the problems.

"The deep South is a national asset, but it needs space. Can we acknowledge that? If not, there will be tension."

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