Interview

Interview with Patrick Winn: New documentary explores vice and violence in Thailand's Deep South

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 9, 2014 Saksith Saiyasombut speaks to award-winning journalist Patrick Winn about his new documentary 'Red Light Jihad'

Bars line the street, on display are neon lights, beer signs and women trying to lure in passing revelers. This scene could be anywhere in Thailand, but this particular red light district in Su-ngai Kolok is on the border with Malaysia in Narathiwat province. Here, soldiers and military vehicles patrol the streets to protect the sex workers and the Malaysian men they cater to from the very real possibility of attacks by Muslim insurgents.

That is the backdrop for 'Red Light Jihad: Thai Vice Under Attack', a short documentary made by Patrick Winn and Mark Oltmanns for the Global Post. Su-ngai Kolok is representative of the distrust, fear and sense of injustice that permeates life in the southernmost, predominantly Muslim provinces in Thailand. The insurgency has claimed more than 5,000 lives in the past decade.

Siam Voices spoke with Global Post's award-winning senior Southeast Asia correspondent Patrick Winn earlier this week via email about his new documentary and the challenges they encountered making it. The interview starts after the trailer below.

[vimeo 111646573 w=623 h=350]

-----------------------------------

Saksith Saiyasombut: Patrick, tell us a little about how this idea for the documentary came about?

Patrick Winn: Most Thais and foreigners alike tend to regard the southern insurgency zone as a hostile, alien place. And yet there’s this raging red-light scene that attracts tons of guys. They’re mostly men from parts of Malaysia under Sharia law, which forbids the bars, prostitution and assorted vice available in Thailand.

Obviously, that situation has all the ingredients needed for a fascinating story. Around this time last year, I considered using the red-light scene as a window into this conflict. So I set out to understand the motivations of the tourists, the sex workers and the jihadis who see all this vice as an intrusion into their homeland.

I was extremely lucky to bring on a highly talented videographer, Mark Oltmanns, who’s also a Thai speaker. It was our second time reporting as a duo on the Deep South.

Saiyasombut: As you just said, this isn’t the first time that you have covered the Deep South - was there anything this time that felt different, especially given the scope of this documentary?

Winn: Actually, no. Martial law may be the new normal for post-coup Thailand but it’s the old normal for the deep south. People have grown numb to the checkpoints, razor wire and violence. The mood is consistent: anxious and not terribly hopeful.

This project was more difficult for me personally because I witnessed a fatal bombing. While reporting in May, I heard a series of thundering booms in my hotel room and rushed out the street. Several blocks away, a woman wearing a hijab was laying face down in the road. She’d been killed by a motorbike bomb. I knew the woman was already dead because she was half-covered with a sheet and emergency workers were unhurriedly removing her gold jewelry. She did not appear to be a target. Just an very unlucky passerby. It was incredibly tragic.

The reactions from shopkeepers, hostesses and others I interviewed after the bombing were also disturbing. They were able to quickly shrug off the violence. Lots of nervous laughter, which is a common Thai coping mechanism.

Saiyasombut: What was the most surprising thing you have encountered during the research and filming? And what was the biggest challenge?

Winn: I was surprised at the candor of the sex workers. There are plenty of reasons why someone with that job wouldn’t want to get mic’d up on camera and answer nosey questions from a foreign journalist. But the women we interviewed seemed eager to drop the happy, smiley mask and just vent. There’s plenty to vent about. They face all the dangers and annoyances any sex worker faces plus the ever-present threat of bombs or bullets. This job requires a lot of cunning and perseverance.

As always, the biggest challenge in reporting on Thailand’s insurgency is representing the jihadi perspective. Even the Taliban and the Islamic State have press officers. But Thailand’s rebellion is infamously murky.

It took some cajoling to get the former leader of a now-defunct insurgent umbrella group called Bersatu to go on camera. His name is Wan Kadir. He’s from Pattani province but says he served in the US army as a non-citizen during the Vietnam War, returned to the states and joined American anti-war protests. That later influenced his zeal to liberate Thailand’s Muslim deep south.

Saiyasombut: The current conflict in the south has been going on for over a decade now with thousands of casualties and despite repeated efforts there’s no apparent resolution in sight - what did you hear on the ground? What are their thoughts about the conflict and do they have any hope for improvement?

Winn: My sense is that hope for improvement among Malays in Thailand runs low. I’m basing this on conversations with a range of sources: everyday non-political folks, activists, separatists and so on. They see that the conflict is entrenched. The Thai establishment isn’t going to cede any power. And Muslim Malay society isn’t going to suddenly transform into a bunch of Buddhist Thais.

Saiyasombut: What’s the impression you’re getting from the Thai authorities? Do they have a better grasp of what’s going on than their superiors in Bangkok?

Winn: The local authorities obviously know their terrain far better than the generals in Bangkok. That doesn’t mean they’re particularly well suited to mediate between Buddhists and Muslims. The factionalism runs very deep. The army fosters a siege mentality. They heavily defend minority Buddhist villages and tend to see all-Muslim areas as danger zones.

For example, in the documentary, you’ll hear a Thai colonel saying that “not all Muslims are bad... but my primary responsibility is to this Buddhist militia.” He’s referring to the "Or Ror Bor", an almost entirely Thai Buddhist armed volunteer force.

For brevity’s sake, I’m painting with a broad brush here: there are also plenty of young troops doing the best they can to behave decently in a violent and unpredictable place.

Saiyasombut: Many different Thai governments have tried to resolve the conflict in the South, none of them successful. The current military government has launched another attempt, but has been very vague about it so far. What really needs to be done?

Winn: The solution is fairly obvious: more autonomy for Malay Muslims, who comprise 80 percent of the deep south’s population. I think most could tolerate living under the Thai state but they’d like much more authority in managing their own affairs. As it stands, the area feels a bit like an occupied colony.

Imagine you grow up in a hometown patrolled by young men with M-16s who can’t speak your language. Neither do most of your schoolteachers, who also preach obedience to an unfamiliar faith. You’re routinely frisked. Most of the major political decisions that affect your life are made by outsiders. It’s a recipe for rebellion.

The jihadis worsen the situation by giving the Thai state a pretext to step up its war footing. Malay Muslims also have to live in fear of separatists murdering them for “collaborating", which is almost impossible to avoid when you live under a system where Thais hold all the political and economic power. It must be exhausting.

The Thai government might relieve this pressure cooker by relinquishing more control. But the military junta is all about tightening control and imposing “happiness” by force. That didn’t work when the Siamese kingdom conquered this territory more than a century ago. They shouldn’t expect it to work now.

Saiyasombut: Thank you very much for the interview!

You can watch the documentary 'Red Light Jihad: Thai Vice Under Attack' over at Global Post. Patrick Winn can be followed on Twitter @BKKApologist and Mark Oltmanns' website can be found here.

On '100% Thai manliness' and the reality of LBGT in Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 7, 2012 On Wednesday, a rather confusing headline made the rounds when a Thai actor told that the country's Ministry of Culture (or as we call it here "ThaiMiniCult") ordered TV executives to ensure that "100 per cent male" actors should not play transgender roles on TV. Naturally, such a bold statement caused at least befuddlement and at most outrage among many people, given their track record in the past especially when it comes to the bare naked truth of sexuality.

However, soon after the news broke the actor in question went on record denying that he ever said the Ministry of Culture issued the order and that it was rather some pooyai (someone in high position, presumably a high ranking official) who asked him not to play transgender roles as he wished to see real transgender actors play their own roles. The permanent secretary of the Ministry of Culture also came out to deny that anyone in his office or their culture watch center ever issued any such ban.

I sat down with Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala to talk about this yet another strange news story involving ThaiMiniCult.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Well,  for a short moment there we thought the Thai Ministry of Culture came out with yet another stunning statement about banning "100 per cent manly" TV actors from playing transgender roles. What do you make of that?

Kaewmala: Probably like most people, my first reaction was "whadda...!!" There are times I wish I could really understand our Ministry of Culture, but other times the idea of knowing exactly what they think frightens me. We were quick to jump in to join the mocking of MiniCult because it's fun. In this case, we should give MiniCult the benefit of the doubt and take the actor's and the MiniCult boss's words for it that MiniCult didn't really issue a ban. (For my part, after having had a quick swipe at them, in an act to ask for forgiveness I mentally lit an incense stick and prostrated once to MiniCult. Just to show fair is fair, you know. They would appreciate that if they knew I prostrated appropriately in Thai style.)

In any case, the idea of “100% manliness” intrigues me. Whoever came up with that concept, I wonder if they used a scale, a measurement tool of some kind, to gauge the actor's manliness? In my (very) heterosexual female eyes, Mick does look quite manly (and handsome to boot) but I’d be hard-pressed to say his manliness is at 100%, 96.50% or 87.46%. I admit my masculinity radar isn’t quite accurate to the decimal point. Sometimes, I even find myself making mistakes; a man who looks so manly - actually those who look so super, hyper-manly - tend to be, um, not in the women’s way, you know.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Traditional theater performances from around the world always had females roles played by men, is there anything similar in 'traditional' Thai culture?

Kaewmala: Have you ever seen Thai Li-ke? The theatrical performance where performers, male or female (100% or otherwise), are painted like in the Japanese Kabuki. The Li-ke heroes such as Lord Rama in Ramayana have white-painted faces, red-painted lips, arching eyebrows and so forth. The audience isn’t confused about their sexuality, I imagine. They know the roles they play are the roles on stage. Whatever sexual orientation or gender identity they might have off-stage is another thing, and people don’t really care.

In the old Siamese royal court, there used to be a tradition of female roles being played by boys or men. My knowledge about Thai classical theater performance is rather limited, so I can’t give you any deep insight on that.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Is Thai 'manliness' in any danger that it would need protection? And from what?

Kaewmala: Why would Thai men’s manliness need protection? I think it takes a straight man who is very secure of his sexuality to play a gender-bending role. Men who are secure about their sexuality are very sexy, irresistible even, to females (or other sexes) attracted to masculine men (Like a man who is a feminist is sexy to many women). And also, why assume that manliness is the exclusive domain of straight men? Many gay men are very manly. Men who want to play a katoey role wouldn't easily turn into a real katoey, if that's what some people fear.

Although there isn't really a need to protect Thai manliness, I think we can guess a little at the rationale of the pooyai who asked the actor not to play the katoey role. He is said to have given the reason that he wished the real katoeys to play the roles, which is really thoughtful, if  true.  A few questions arise, however. Does the pooyai want to save the job opportunity for the real transgender/transsexual people? Or does he want to preserve the purity of Thai manliness? Or a bit of both? We don't know enough about the pooyai to speculate whether he's a liberal progressive or a conservative by making such a request to the actor. But in general, a liberal progressive person is unlikely to intervene in other people's affairs, but there's no hard and fast rule on that either. My guess would be that he's more likely a conservative.

Conservatism is driven by the need to protect the sacred and to uphold the purity and sanctity of whatever is believed to be pure and sacred. Thai manliness in this case might be perceived as being in danger of being contaminated by a straight-male actor playing a transgender role, hence making it less sacred. Conservative people tend to like to keep things as they are. They don't like changes and prefer to see things in clear categories. Men as men. Women as women. Katoeys as katoeys. Mixing and crossing these set categories confuse and upset people who believe in the purity and sacredness of these categories that they want to keep separate. That's why you always hear cries how things are now "degenerated," "contaminated by foreign influences," etc.

You see, Thailand is well known for its openness to alternative sexualities and transgender people can live more or less openly here if they so choose but that doesn’t mean there aren’t prejudices against them. The state of being a transgender, transsexual, gay, tom, di, bisexual, or whatever that is not the mainstream heterosexual, is still perceived as a perversion. Mainstream Thai society still perceives them as freaks of nature. (It's like, "alright, alright, if that's what you want to be - but you aren't 100%, so stay away from us, in your place, you're so lucky we tolerate you.") And these prejudices are always looming shallow and deep in the background. Occasionally, it pops up in an advertisement, a government rule or regulation, a law, or some pooyai's mouth.

Saksith Saiyasombut: That's a good point, since Thai society has always been regarded as rather friendly towards people with different sexual orientations - especially judging by public presence of transgender people - is that really the case?

Kaewmala: Appearance can be misleading. Compared to many other societies, yes, Thai society is quite open in day-to-day treatment of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. Thai transgender people aren’t killed or beat up because of their sexuality to the extent it happens in some other countries (though this kind of hate crimes also exists in Thailand to some extent). Instead, we have world-renowned katoey shows, arguably the best looking ladyboys on earth, and tourists the world over flock to see them in cabarets, in beauty pageant stages, etc. We have transgender people working prominently in shopping malls, in customer services, in beauty, entertainment and sex venues. But that’s pretty much where most of them are. Very few of them are in regular jobs, often not because they don’t want to, but the opportunities are limited. They are still discriminated against widely in terms of employment. Their opportunities are even officially restricted, in particular in government, police and military jobs. Military service regulations still include "katoey" as a prohibited disease and hence disqualifies anyone who is a katoey to apply for jobs in military service. Only months ago that the official branding of transgender people as “having a permanent mental disorder” on the military conscription exemption paper was finally put to stop. This paper has been the biggest obstacle for transgender people for a long time and has prevented them getting jobs, visas, doing legal transactions, etc.

In short, socially there is a fair amount of tolerance for people with different sexual identities but they are still lots of problems and unfair treatments going on based on attitudes and laws and official regulations in this country, most particularly concerning transgender people. It’s not all peaches! Things are changing gradually for the better however, like we just have the first transgender politician who won the provincial administration office in Nan. Hopefully she will bring positive changes, especially in terms of recognizing transwomen (transgender persons who have had sex change operations to become a woman) like her as legally female, so that they could have a legal identity as female, get married, and live fully as a woman, instead of legally as a man but for all practical purposes as a woman.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Ok, let's say whoever came up that "no-transgenders-played-by-straight-actors" - idea would now look very anti-transgender - but could it be possible that this initiative is meant to protect the real transgender actors from getting their jobs stolen from their non-transgender colleagues?

Kaewmala: That is possible. In the best case scenario, the idea is to protect job opportunities for transgender people in acting jobs. It would be a new thing, and seems like a very positive thing indeed. Like banning white people from painting their faces black to play black people as it happened in history in the West. What do you think is the chance of that being the case here?

For argument’s sake, if the reason is really to protect acting job opportunities for transgender people on the principle of equality and fairness, what about straight women playing lesbian, tom and dii roles? Can "100% manly" gay men play straight male and katoey roles? 

Is it supposed to be about gender equality, fair opportunity in employment, or gender-specific or sexual orientation-specific guidelines for the acting profession? And for what purpose exactly? If actors comply with pooyais' recommendations as it seems to be the case with this actor who made the news, where will this go and where will it end?

Kaewmala is a writer, a blogger and an avid twitterer. She blogs at thaiwomantalks.com and is a provocateur of Thai language, culture and politics @thai_talk. Kaewmala is the author of a book that looks at the linguistic and cultural aspects of Thai sexuality called “Sex Talk”.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.

Exclusive: ‘This is not the last straw for Thai democracy’ – Suranand Vejjajiva

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 15, 2011 This is part two of Siam Voices' exclusive interview with Suranand Vejjajiva, former Cabinet Minister under Thaksin Shinawatra, now a politicial columnist for the Bangkok Post and host of "The Commentator" on VoiceTV.

In this second installment, Suranand talks to Saksith Saiyasombut about a wide range of topics, including the fate of the red shirts, the future of the Democrat Party, our education crisis, the state of the media and Thaksin. For part one, click here.

Saksith Saiyasombut: Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law, has been blamed to be partly responsible that Thailand has been downgraded by several media freedom watchdogs as for it‘s decreasing freedom of speech. Do you think a Pheu Thai government is capable to improve on this?

Suranand Vejjajiva: Oh yes, if they‘re willing to. The Democrat Party could have done it, too. The enforcement of that law, that it leaves to individual judgement, is problematic. A policeman can interpret the law differently. What the outgoing government has done is to string this law together with the Computer Crimes Act (CCA), all for political purposes. I don‘t agree with this development at all - let everyone speak their mind! To answer your question: Pheu Thai would definitely get into trouble, there‘ll be people attacking them...

...if they would tweak Article 122 or its application. But there are also other aspects they could improve on...

...they could improve the Computer Crimes Act. A lot of groups have been proposing for a change.

Exactly, even though the MICT has proposed a new draft of the CCA, which was even worse - which hasn‘t materialized yet...

...luckily...

Let‘s talk about the red shirt movement, what will happen to them now?

It‘s a good sign that the red shirt leaders are running for office and they should perform their duties as such. But the red shirts as a movement is a political phenomenon that should be studied and they should keep it up, they should improve and reform - make it a mature political movement and they will be an important political force, if they believe in protecting democracy. They have to prove themselves, too. A lot of people are accusing them for being just a vehicle for Thaksin to come back to power. Now, if they prove themselves to be just that and forget the people, then they will suffer. I don‘t wish to see that - the same can be said even for the yellow shirts! If they would have developed into a real political movement - fine!

Is it - for the lack of a better word - 'appropriate' if any of the red leaders-now-elected-MPs would get a cabinet post?

 

It‘s all political negotiation. For me personally, I don‘t mind because they would have to prove themselves and as long as they do not use their new power to intervene with their own cases, that‘s fine.

What about the new opposition, the Democrat Party...

...the new opposition with the old leaders? (laughs)

Well, will there be the old leaders or will there be new faces taking over, since Abhisit is now a burnt commodity?

It‘s quite a shame, but at the same Abhisit would be a liability to the Democrats for now. He‘s still very young and there‘re still ways to vindicate him - but with the 91 deaths hanging over his government, it‘s going to be hard. It‘s going to be a liability if he is still the opposition leader. The Democrats probably need a new face. But if they can‘t find one - Abhisit is still one of the strongest candidate on this side of the aisle, he has been protecting the conservatives and the establishment.

So if it‘s not going to be Abhisit, he thinks it should be someone from his fraction like (outgoing finance minister) Korn Chatikavanij or (former Bangkok governor) Apirak Kosayodhin - they have to work it out among themselves.

So it would be best to have a fresh new start with new faces?

Looking from Pheu Thai‘s point of view, it would be good if Abhisit stays! (laughs)

Speaking of new faces, how do you explain that Chuwit Kalomvisit‘s Rak Prathet Thai Party could get four seats? Was this a protest movement?

Yes, you have to give him credit. He is very energetic, he could get his message across - even though he looks crazy sometimes. And his message is easy and direct. But at the same time, a lot of people were thinking to „Vote No“, but once the PAD took that position, many people were thinking ,What am I going to do with my protest vote?‘ - they gave it to Chuwit.

Especially a lot of young people...

...especially a lot of young people who are bored of politics! Which happens in a lot of countries!

But at least in other countries there‘s a vocal part of the youth who are standing up against wrongdoings...

...and they are more organized...

...but here in Thailand, they are virtually invisible!

It‘ because of our weak education. The political consciousness and democratic principles need to be taught in school. Thai schools are still very authoritative and not bold enough to open up to let their students talk and speak [their mind]. It‘s not like the Western schools, it‘s a cultural thing that you have to develop. It hurts in a way, it makes the institutions weak, bad politicians can still remain in office - people basically don‘t really care!

Despite the fact the outgoing government has thrown more money at the problem, there are now more and more international reports indicating that the Thai education system is producing not very skilled labors and also in English proficiency we are falling behind. And then comes Pheu Thai and their most memorable education policy is „Free tablet PCs for all“...

In my opinion, giving out free tablet PCs is still better than just giving out free uniforms. Because at least the tablet PC can - if done right - open up access to information for the students, and it would also solve other problems, like printing frauds. But I agree with you, it‘s deeper than that!

It doesn‘t take gadgets to solve this problem, which are more fundamental...

...it‘s the fundamental attitude of the Ministry of Education towards education!

I‘m not very convinced there will be much change by the next government.

No, which will hurt us even more. It‘ll take a decade, it would take two or three generations to change the education system, but you have to begin somewhere. And I agree with you, if they don‘t do it now...

...we will have another lost generation?

Yes.

A weak society needs a strong media to at least uphold the pillars of society, but we don't have that as well.

We don‘t! As seen in many foreign countries, a strong public television system really helps a society to develop - we don‘t have it here. We tried to do it a lot of times, but that was no real public service television.

What I‘m trying to say is, I see a direct correlation between weak education and weak media. So there's less of a sense to challenge, criticize and openly question things that are needed to be addressed.

Well, we were just talking about the campaign. If we were in the United States or Germany, a good 90 per cent of the Thai campaign policies would have been shot down by the press, because they would been well researched with reports, graphics; arguing wether this is feasible - but you don‘t see that in Thai press, they would just ask that academic, then this academic and that‘s it! Just soundbites!

British academic Duncan McCargo wrote a book about the Thai press ("Politics & the Press in Thailand: Media Machinations"), which is 10 years old, his research is 15 years old...

...and it‘s still valid - unfortunately!

He says, among many other things, that the Thai media mostly lacks a „sense of duty to explain the political process“. Can there be change as well, even in these very solid, top-down structures?

I hope so, there are a lot of good publishing houses and newspapers. But you don‘t see any quality papers á la New York Times or you don‘t see an investigative television show. I hope the young generation will be able to use the internet more wisely. But we don‘t have a strong enough education system to create an opportunity for them to question the information they are getting, then they will be fooled like everyone else.

Getting back to politics: will this transition of power be smooth?

For the sake of the country, I‘d like to see that. Whether Pheu Thai is good or bad - give them a chance to run the country, at best for four years. If they have done well, re-elect them; if not, throw them out of the office! That‘s the simple democratic principle.

But to answer your question: I doubt it, there‘ll be a lot of challenges. Now, if the challenges come within the parliamentary system, fine. But if it‘s not, then there will be trouble.

Is this one of the reasons why there‘ll be an intervention from an undemocratic force or is it still too early to say?

It‘s too early to say! The advantage for us right now is, after the recent events in the world, like the Arab Spring, are cautionary tales for people who try to exercise power outside the framework of democracy. But I also think that Pheu Thai‘s action in government will be important: appoint good and capable cabinet ministers, prove themselves that they are fair and transparent, no corruption cases - this would help. But if they come in and do the same thing - what I‘m scared of is that people will lose faith in democracy.

Haven‘t many people already lost their faith in the current democratic system, especially the youth?

Yes, even some of the rural people - there was a whole village that didn‘t come out to vote at all! But at the same time I think it‘s not the last straw! But if the next government does the same mistakes the Democrats did and disappoint the people, then the military would see this as an excuse to say: "Let‘s get in!" But that‘s not the solution!

Of course there‘s a dark, shadowy figure looming around this whole political crisis, it‘s of course Thaksin. Do you think Thaksin should have kept his mouth shut in the last few months?

I don‘t mind. If he feels he‘s been treated unfairly, let him say so. People talk a lot in this country. But whatever he says, he has to live with the consequences, like everyone else.

But nevertheless Yingluck got a big boost, because she‘s Thaksin‘s sister.

 

Yes! Thaksin is both an asset and a liability. He‘s certainly an asset - his vision, his connections, his networks, his charisma...

...his ego...

...I mean, he has the drive, to put it that way. But on the other hand he is a liability because he has so many political enemies.

The question many are asking is if Yingluck can stand on her own as a PM.

That is going to be important for the country. Yes, she is Thaksin‘s sister, she can‘t deny that. And in reality Thaksin is helping out a lot. But in a short period of time, she has been a successful campaigner. Now she has to prove, in an even shorter period time, that she can run the country. We have to give her that chance.

Will this government, and the red shirt movement as well, be capable and willing to move beyond Thaksin?

This is what they have to sit down and talk about.

Is this country able to?

Oh yes, definitely! There will be a day, where Thaksin is too old and you have to move on.

Will he come back?

I think so. He should come home, but to power? That‘s going to be another problem.

Khun Suranand, thank you very much!

Exclusive: Pheu Thai should talk policies first - Suranand Vejjajiva

In this two-part interview, Saksith Saiyasombut talks to Suranand Vejjajiva, a former Cabinet Minister under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration who served as the Minister of the PM's Office and spokesman of the Thai Rak Thai Party, until the ban of this party and 111 politicians in 2007. The cousin of the now outgoing prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Suranand is a columnist for the Bangkok Post and host of "The Commentator" on VoiceTV.

In part one we talk about Pheu Thai's election victory and the work ahead of them, including the economy and reconciliation process and where it went wrong for the Democrat Party. In part two, we'll look ahead at the fate of the new government, the red shirts, the Democrat Party and Thaksin Shinawatra and also at the state of education and the media in Thailand.

We had Election Day on Sunday, July 3 - then on Monday, July 4, we already have a coalition or at least an agreement to form a coalition. What this to be expected to happen so quickly?

I‘m not in the inner circle, but what I was thinking is that - since PT has 265 seats - they don‘t have a wide enough margin. They expect that some elected MPs could get disqualified [by the Election Commission], so they have already talked to smaller parties to get the margin up to 299 seats to be safe. (Note: it‘s 300 now, ed.)

Do you think this coalition is stable enough?

In terms of numbers yes, definitely. The coalition partners don‘t have any leverage to change anything much because PT already has enough seats. If PT would have fewer seats, let‘s say 220, and a coalition partner with 20 seats would come in, then they would have more leverage, then the coalition would be unstable. But number-wise, this coalition is stable.

We have now the usual claims on the ministries, but as you just said, the coalition partners don‘t have any leverage - still, I cannot imagine that they want to go out empty handed...

Oh, they will get their ministries! My first observation was along this line, too. But it‘s too early to talk about cabinet positions - the Election Commission has not even certified the MPs yet, there‘s still a lot of time. I think Pheu Thai is being pushed by the media...

...practically hyped up...

...yeah, hyped up - to talk about cabinet positions, because that‘s what the media is interested in. But I don‘t think Pheu Thai should fall for that. For example when I saw in the news today, when Khun Yingluck came out and talked about policies - that‘s what parties should talk about right now.

So what are the policies they should look at first?

It will be two-prong. The first one is reconciliation, it‘s a policy-cum-mechanism that they have to implement. They cannot say by themselves that they will do this and that, since they are a part of the conflict as well. So what Khun Yingluck is trying to propose, a neutral committee while keeping the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Dr. Kanit, is good in a way...

Even though Dr. Kanit's panel has hardly found anything...

It‘s because the now-outgoing administration didn‘t give them anything. It‘s a paper tiger, they don‘t even get the budget they needed - let alone access to all the evidence. So if Yingluck comes in as the prime minister and opens up everything to Kanit‘s committee - that‘s one thing she has to make sure that happens.

The other thing of course is the economic situation. Not all people care for reconciliation, but a lot of them care what is going to be in their wallets and in their stomachs.

And are Pheu Thai‘s policies a real way out? For example, one of the first things they have planned is to raise the minimum wage to 300 Baht...

It's hard to say. I have criticized nearly every party's policies, I don‘t believe in these so-called 'populist platforms'. Yes, Thailand still has gaps and loopholes concerning wages or the welfare system. But to give handouts from the first day will be a strain on the fiscal discipline for the government. What they should have done though, while I agree with the wage raise, is to explain what kind of structural adjustments they would do for the economy. When investors and business people see that for example the minimum wage increase is part of a larger restructuring, they might be more confident over the economy.

Let‘s take a look back for a moment. You said that you have criticized almost every party‘s policies - what made Pheu Thai stand out from anybody else?

Pheu Thai and its previous incarnations (People‘s Power Party and Thai Rak Thai) have a track record - if you look at their economic team, all former cabinet ministers - that is for me and probably for many people enough for us now to have confidence in them.

Where did it go wrong for the Democrat Party then?

On reconciliation - they were not sincere enough about it, they haven‘t provided an official explanation on what happened last year yet, we only got political rhetoric so far. And no cases have gone into the judicial process yet.

What about the economic side?

They have not been able to deal with the rising cost of living. Of course, they would say the export figures are excellent, but they are excellent because we are a food producing country. But the prices on (palm) oil, nearly all prices went up. They haven‘t been able to manage the domestic side, not even the 'trickling down' of these benefits towards the urban population but also to the farmers. I think that‘s why they lost the vote.

Then there was the last-ditch attempt to hold a rally at Rajaprasong, which didn‘t really help them in the end...

Well, I‘m trying to figure out the Bangkok vote, which consists of two factors: first, the Democrats control the election mechanics in Bangkok for a very long time, so they‘re better organized than Pheu Thai in Bangkok. Secondly, Abhisit was continuing to bet on the politics of fear - the fear of Thaksin, the fear of the red shirts. Abhisit was targeting the Bangkok electorate, especially the middle-class.

We have now talked about the reconciliation and economic policies of the Pheu Thai Party. What else should be on top of their list?

Foreign policy. Especially with the neighboring countries, because I think we cannot live among ourselves. The outgoing government has created very bad relations with our neighbors and that doesn‘t help because ASEAN 2015 (the planned establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community, ed.) is coming very soon. If you really want to be a real borderless ASEAN, it has to be proven on the mainland and if Thailand doesn‘t have good relations with its neighbors, it will be problematic. The border situation with Cambodia was mishandled very badly from a diplomatic standpoint - it could have resolved bi-laterally long time ago. If there were good relations, we wouldn‘t have any incidents, not even at the UN Security Council or to the International Court of Justice or the World Heritage Committee. That is embarrassing.

Part of the much-discussed reconciliation policy of Pheu Thai has been a potential amnesty plan - if there has been ever one. Is it a smart move to give everybody, convicted of political wrongdoings, amnesty? Is this how a proper reconciliation looks like?

I don‘t agree at all with that. I don‘t see that an amnesty will help anyone. You can forgive, but only after a certain process. I‘m a banned politician for only eight more months and I have never called for an amnesty. But if you absolve all these cases, including Thaksin, the terrorist accusations against red and yellow shirts, the military coup, the defamation cases - you cannot give an amnesty that way, because there are a lot of other people in jail who will call for their own amnesty as well! The best way for reconciliation is not an amnesty, but to make sure that the judicial process is fair and transparent in order to provide real justice.

But does it like it at the moment or does the judicial system need changes?

Once you say you have to reform the whole judicial process, then that‘s a big problem. For example, the government has to find a credible and socially accepted Minister of Justice first...

Now who would that be?

I don‘t know! But it‘s important this person is independent. This government has to set an example, especially for the cases that involve the red shirts and Thaksin. I don‘t think Thaksin wants an amnesty, since he himself said he didn‘t do anything wrong. But if he‘s sure that the judicial process is fair and transparent, he might be able to come back and fight his case.