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Former Thai PM defends protest response
Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva talks to Jim Middleton about his government’s handling of the 2010 anti-government protests in Bangkok in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings.

It's just over two years since Thailand's military opened fire on anti-government protestors in Bangkok, killing more than 90 and injuring many more.

The prime minister at the time, Abhisit Vejjajiva, set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to get to the bottom of what happened, but the protests contributed to his defeat in last year's election.

Now the commission has determined that his government was partly responsible for what happened and should have done more to control the military.
JIM MIDDLETON: Abhisit Vejjajiva, welcome to the program.

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA, FORMER THAI PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very having me on the show.

JIM MIDDLETON: To what extent are politicians of all colours in Thailand responsible for the deep and persistent rifts within the community? What should they be doing to promote reconciliation at this point of the political cycle?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Well you know, after the events of 2010, what I did as prime minister was to appoint an independent commission with a view to achieve reconciliation by having this Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And they have now come up with a set of recommendations. I wish that politicians from all sides would take a serious look at these recommendations and find ways in which we might move towards implementing them.

I think for us in the opposition, we have said that we are doing all we can, contributing on our part, towards greater stability in politics. That's partly the reason why I dissolved the house to have early elections. And when the election results were coming in I made a concession.

And I wished now that the government would get on with the job of governing and at the same time allow society to absorb the recommendations and the conclusions from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and now begin to think about how we might go on implementing them.

JIM MIDDLETON: Speaking of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, do you accept its specific finding that your government and you failed to do enough to control the military in containing the protest in 2010?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Well, you know, the report has wide coverage and it's going to take some time before we all absorb the details. But the main conclusion appears to be that of course all sides to the conflict are all responsible for what happened. I think that is something that is very hard to deny.

About the specifics, I think they had identified that the situation in 2009, 2010 evolved into a situation where there were armed elements among protesters, which made it extremely difficult.

JIM MIDDLETON: On that specific matter, did you or anyone in your government authorise the use of life ammunition by the military during the protests in 2010?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: There were clear operational guidelines and instructions and announcements made by the people who were in charge at the operation level. I think what happened in certain cases have been that because there were armed elements and fighting happening on the streets, that's when the losses and the casualties took place and happened, which we all regret.

I think in terms of specific events, that is going to be resolved, well, through the courts ultimately.

JIM MIDDLETON: On that score, then, do you think any members of the military deserve to be prosecuted? Or is it still the case in Thailand that the military simply is too powerful to be brought before the courts, brought to justice?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: No, investigations are going on. And there have been cases submitted to the court to determine the causes of the deaths of some people during the protests. And the Department of Special Investigations are proceeding with investigations.

I myself have cooperated, been summoned, and so have a number of key people including the military. So we should allow that process to continue. All we ask for is that that process does not become politicised or biased in any way.

JIM MIDDLETON: You have accused the Department of Special Investigations of targeting you and your deputy prime minister at the time. But isn't it legitimate that you be investigated given the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found your government at least partly responsible for the deaths that did occur?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Yeah, I think we have to be clear. What the report has concluded was that, despite some of the guidelines that we have issued, there was perhaps not a good enough monitoring process in making sure that the operations went according to those guidelines.

I think that's the clearest conclusion, as far as responsibilities resting on people operating and maybe issuing the orders at the time. And so we have to allow the courts and other mechanisms to determine exactly what happens on specific cases and proceed.

What we are concerned about is, despite the fact that without some of the facts coming in to light we have had the current deputy prime minister, the current head of the Department of Special Investigations jumping to conclusions, particularly in saying that no-one is going to be held responsible except for myself and the deputy prime minister, which appears to me clearly politically motivated.

JIM MIDDLETON: On a broader question, can reconciliation be achieved as long as Thailand's politicians can be second guessed as it were by the courts? Is there a need for a more robust constitution?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: What we really need to do now is to come together and take a look at this report as a starting point. I think it has been extremely difficult to get the two sides, or maybe even more than two sides, in this conflict to come together with any kind of common ground.

I had hoped that the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would provide that starting point. And it is regrettable that at the moment the Red Shirts have clearly come out to reject the report, the government itself is not showing any kind of determination to proceed with this.

JIM MIDDLETON: You did not come to power as a result of a democratic election. To what extent do you think that undermined your legitimacy as prime minister, made your job just that much more difficult?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Well, you have a parliamentary system there, I think you will understand that whoever puts a majority in the House or gathers a majority in the House can form a government.

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: You yourself are having a coalition government, I know that the margin was very, very small. So you know I was elected by parliament in the same way as my two, three predecessor were. And we have had precedents in the past where parties who were not - who did not have the most seats assumed leadership.

And on fact, if you look at the facts, the people when the MPs were asked to make a choice, it was a choice between me and a leader of a smaller party for the post of prime minister.

JIM MIDDLETON: Let me put it this way then, would you, given your experiences, accept another commission as prime minister without winning a democratic election?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: I would certainly prefer to win elections. And I don't think there would be that scenario again. I think you have to remember, what happened in December of 2008 was that and situation where we were almost heading towards becoming a failed state. Nothing was getting done, we had protesters occupying the airport, we had two successive governments that failed to deliver in terms of policy pledges, as well as keeping order. And, you know, we needed stability.

And we went through a parliamentary process, we had a change of government. And, in fact, during my tenure we managed to get the Thai economy to recover quickly from any impact from the Global Financial Crisis, and tried as my best to return things to normal. Unfortunately, former prime minister Thaksin had been inciting his supporters to stage continuous protests which ultimately led to violence.

JIM MIDDLETON: You mentioned Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister, his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra denies that she is his puppet, that he is pulling the strings. Do you believe he will eventually return to Thailand, though?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Well he can return to Thailand now. But he has to be under the law. I mean there is a court verdict which has sentenced him to jail on charges of corruption. So it depends whether he will eventually accept that verdict, come back and serve his sentence and maybe seek a pardon.

JIM MIDDLETON: So is it your bet then that the prime minister will not defy public opinion and allow him to return?

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Well we have to wait and see because they have not withdrawn those bills, so they may come up for consideration if the government feels confident enough to try to push them through.

But clearly we had a short spell where they were attempting to do that and street protests returned and there was a clear threat of violence, which will serve nobody. So I hope that the prime minister will have the good sense that her priorities now should be on the economy, should be on flood prevention, should be on stamping out corruption.

JIM MIDDLETON: Abhisit Vejjajiva, thank you very much for your time.

ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: You're welcome. Thank you.
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