Prayut's stance at UN must stand the test of logic

Prayut's stance at UN must stand the test of logic

As a Thai citizen I would like to wish Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his delegation good luck on his imminent visit to the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Under the full glare of the international press, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, will be in full "defence formation" as they say in American Football. He will be aware the prime minister will have to adjust his own attitude when speaking in a liberal democratic nation, where a vigorous free press are trained like police Rottweilers to tear away at any spin designed to deceive, or any argument that doesn't stand the test of reason and logic.

I spent two terrific years completing my graduate studies in New York, and was lucky enough to attend a class at the Columbia School of Journalism, taught by a heartbroken Prof Al Gore, who had just lost a controversial presidential election to George W Bush. I still remember to this day how Al Gore set the satirical press and late night talk shows ablaze, from one mistake in a presidential debate with that infamous sigh. He rolled his eyes and sighed aloud into the microphone while Mr Bush was talking. As a result, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, Jay Leno of the Tonight Show, and the late Tim Russert of Meet the Press had a field day, and Al Gore was perceived by voters to be an arrogant, self absorbed, intellectual bully, and the rest is history. That's the power of a free press.

For what it's worth, here is my advice to the prime minister when he addresses the UN Assembly and the international press in New York.

First, denying the fact that Thailand is not under a military dictatorship, as Foreign Minister Don tried to do in a recent interview, is an exercise in futility that will be laughed out of court. Why? Because such a claim is not supported by any credible evidence. Arresting students in peaceful protests, incarcerating reporters for dissenting opinions on Twitter and using Section 44 as a magic wand to avoid democratic due process, points to the fact that Thailand is a country not governed by democracy or even rule of law for that matter.

Second, the prime minister lashing out or going ballistic when probed by the international press will not be treated as comic relief, as it is here in Thailand. Thai humour, as the minister of foreign affairs will fully comprehend, does not translate well into British or American humour. So, under no circumstances would professing love for China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi by saying "if I was a woman I would fancy him", which was declared by former foreign minister Gen Tanasak Patimapragorn, be deemed appropriate on this occasion.

If the prime minister or the foreign minister wishes to profess any love, my advice would be to confine these remarks to the love of King and country.

Third, since the prime minister will be spending some time in New York, I would recommend that he visits my alma mater and soak up what it feels like to be in an institution of higher learning, where intellectual freedom is fiercely guarded, and dissenting opinions are appreciated because it encourages the free exchange of concepts and ideas.

At Columbia University, you'd be hard pressed to find any resemblance to our 12 moral principles. The only principle which all great institutions of higher learning share is their belief that encouraging intellectual curiosity is the only path that leads to the fountain of knowledge. Try summoning Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and professor of sustainable development at the School of International and Public Affairs, for an "attitude adjustment" and see what his response would be if you don't believe me.

I appreciate that the prime minister and I have contrasting views on which direction Thailand should be heading.

But I believe he means well and is an unrelenting patriot. But so am I. I happen to believe that our strength comes from engaging public discourse, not suppressing it, celebrating our history but not living in it, and creating a more open society instead of confusing indoctrination with education.

Thailand was once a shining beacon for democracy and a window for international trade and investment into Southeast Asia. We are no longer. Even a repeat of Thaksinomics cannot solve Thailand's endemic structural problems in our economy and democracy.

I was invited by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun to the recent annual Bank of Thailand Symposium on Democratic Governance, where he wisely said in his speech that reforming our institutions, the economy, our democracy and society, had to be coupled with reforming the Thai "mindset". I fully agree with him.

But in my opinion, the biggest change in mindset has to be how we judge people. I think we should judge people not on who they know, but what they know; not where they are from but where they are going.

Essentially, we need a meritocratic society that allows the cream to rise to the top. Otherwise something else will rise to the top, and it doesn't look or taste anything like cream.

Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from the London School of Economics and Columbia University. He can be reached at Twitter: @SongkranTalk

Songkran Grachangnetara


Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University.

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