Abhisit talks post-pandemic future
Ex-prime minister showers praise on nation's healthcare system in containing virus spread but remains adamant that charter rewrite is necessary to stem domestic divisions
As observers try to fathom how the Covid-19 pandemic will reshape healthcare, the economy, lifestyles and beyond, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva reckons that the global health crisis should serve as a call to arms for Thailand to reduce economic dependencies that make it vulnerable. Moreover, it should also serve as a time when the country revisits its development strategies.
While the coronavirus outbreak has revealed the strength of the country’s public healthcare system, it has also exposed some weaknesses and deficiencies, according to Mr Abhisit.
One such deficiency is the country’s hard-hit service and tourism sector — which relies heavily on foreign visitors — that have come to a grinding halt as a result of the outbreak.
Thailand should consider shifting to quality tourism and focus on sustainable resource management as well as mobilise resources to the agriculture and food industries in order to strengthen the economy, Mr Abhisit said.
However, he also warned that the country should not send the wrong message or isolate itself since international trade remains essential for economic development and growth.
As for the transition to the “new normal”, Mr Abhisit is cautious as he noted certain changes brought on by the pandemic may not be permanent.
“I don’t think people’s lifestyle will completely change.
“We can see in our own country and overseas that when the situation improves, people want to go back to their pre-Covid routines. When in crisis, it’s normal for people to be alert,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the political front, Mr Abhisit predicted that Thailand is likely to return to its usual pattern. The shock brought on by the global health crisis is unlikely to free Thailand of the political divisiveness which it has been trapped in for a long time.
In his view, pre-Covid political conflicts have not subsided and have simply faded to the background as the focus presently is on the urgency to curb the spread of the virus. However, as the pandemic continues to ease, there is a high likelihood of controversial issues — which had been dormant — emerging again and possibly igniting political friction.
The ex-Democrat leader explained that political fallout due to the 2017 coup-sponsored charter has been immense as critics argue that it was designed by the military regime to achieve specific political goals and that a charter rewrite is an absolute requirement to level the political playing field.
Additionally, there has also been a rise in the sharp difference in political views and opinions between the younger and older generation. If the government’s handling of the economic impacts brought about by the outbreak goes sideways and widens the socio-economic gap, it may fuel public discontent and further escalate political tension.
“The 2017 charter shows the rules were unfairly written to give advantages to a certain group of people in their quest for power. The conflicts may be overshadowed by the current public health emergency, but they are all there and will resurface sooner or later.
“It is really difficult to amend the charter without support from those in power and the issue will be a test of their sincerity.
“If there is none [charter rewrite], it can be a catalyst for escalating conflict,” Mr Abhisit said, apparently referring to the setting up of a House committee studying constitutional amendments.
The panel, which was originally scheduled to wrap up its study by late June, is seeking another 90 days to complete its work due to the delay caused by Covid-19. One of the key issues targeted for change is a provision which allows senators to join the House of Representatives in voting for prime minister.
According to Mr Abhisit, during the general election last year, he had tried to create a new political environment to break the trap of political divisiveness, however, his attempt failed to appeal to voters and he and the party suffered consequences.
The then Democrat leader stunned voters when he announced just two weeks prior to the March 2019 polls that he would not support Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s return to power as premier.
Many party supporters turned their back on the party and Mr Abhisit stepped down from his position on polling night when it became clear the party had won fewer than 100 MPs and failed to retain a single seat in Bangkok. He later also quit as the party’s list-MP ahead of the parliament vote to install Gen Prayut as the prime minister.
Several critics agreed that his stance did not bode well in the election in which voters remained politically divided.
After the elections were over, the country was set for a new division which pitted the coalition government against its opponents, according to Mr Abhisit. This political divide is still as sharp as ever despite the extended enforcement of the emergency decree to contain Covid-19.
“Anti-government critics have viewed the extended enforcement of the emergency decree as unhealthy to democracy. The government, on the other hand, views any criticism as hostile or ill-intent,” Mr Abhisit added.
Until the constitution is amended to make the rules fair and unless those in power recognise the increasing role of the younger generation in politics, he warned that conflict may escalate.
Mr Abhisit believes that young people do not agree with the extreme views expressed by certain groups and they want to see reform. When their voice is ignored by those in power, they get embroiled in a political fight, however, the government can avoid this problem by listening to them more and shifting its mindset.
However, the ex-Democrats leader disagrees with the observation that countries under an authoritarian system have performed better in containing the pandemic than those under democratic rule. He argued that there is no evidence to prove one type of regime is better and in fact, several countries under the democratic system have succeeded in halting the spread of the virus.
Transparency and public awareness about the health crisis are more likely factors that make a difference, he said.
The idea that authoritarian countries respond to the crisis better is because some people simply look at two extremes — China and the US. While China imposed draconian lockdown measures to slow the spread and was successful, it gave birth to the idea that a democratic country is not up for the task.
“And it is quite wrong to think that way. New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea have handled the crisis well.
“And there is no evidence countries that a different political system performs better. It all comes down to government leadership and policy to resolve the crisis,” he added.
In Thailand, which reported the first novel coronavirus case outside of China, the success of containing virus spread lies with public healthcare policy that advocates information transparency following the H1N1 and Sars outbreaks.
The general public also has trust and confidence in the medical community, which in this crisis has not only planned and directed the government’s Covid-19 response but also played a vital role in sending clear messages to the public about what is being done. There was also the army of community health volunteer workers, known as Aor Sor Mor, who knocked on people’s doors to ensure risk-groups were under careful watch.
The former prime minister also weighed in on global collaboration efforts to manage the crisis, saying that another challenge is awaiting the international community which has pinned its hope on the discovery of a vaccine to put an end to the pandemic once and for all.
Mr Abhisit said that the international community has yet to discuss and agree to how the vaccine will be rolled out. Apparently individual countries have been left to figure out on their own what they must do to secure a potential vaccine supply.
“There is no clear guideline about how the vaccine will be rolled out. This tells us that when a global crisis strikes, we don’t see much international collaboration. It also possibly explains why it is so difficult to tackle climate change despite its profound global impact. We fall short of having a collective system to manage this transboundary problem,” he said.
According to Mr Abhisit, the pandemic has exposed risks and challenges that come with globalisation. Across the world, the novel coronavirus and the measures implemented to stem its spread have hit the poor and the marginalised particularly hard.
“The Covid-19 pandemic shows what we can expect if we are not prepared to deal with things like globalisation, technological disruption or disparity,” he said.