(Commentary) – Thailand hosted the World Economic Forum for East Asia with many smiles and pretty faces last week. That, literally, was about all the Thailand government was able to do.
During the three-day event, Thailand's political future was also held hostage by Pheu Thai's efforts to rush an amnesty law – disguised as a “reconciliation” bill –through the National Assembly. The ruling party could have delayed the deliberation by a few days to allow the WEF conference to proceed without headlines about lawmakers battling in the House, rallies outside and other confusion.
While Thai leaders kept on reiterating about political stability and great prospects to the WEF participants, their country was confronting one of the most serious crises since 1932. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra did not have a clue how it would link to the WEF. Her head and heart were not there in the first place. The instruction from her brother, Thaksin, was far more important – the government must go all out to push the bills through now. The result was disastrous for all to see with the possibility of another round of bloody polarization.
Instead of headlines featuring Thailand's economic positive outlook and resurgence, news zeroed in on political disorder and of course, inept leadership. That explains why the WEF, supposed to be a foremost showcase of Thailand's economic development and prospects after last year's flood, turned into cheap theatrical acts and a public relations flop.
The government's economic advisory team also did a sloppy job because the prime minister's speech at the opening WEF session was mediocre and without any vision. She highlighted Thailand and connectivity along the North-South corridor and touched briefly on the Dawei deep sea-port development but paid more attention to various high-speed train links from Northeast Thailand and Laos. Her speech mainly focused on the connectivity under the Asean Plus Three framework, which did not include the development of Dawei as a matter of fact. For such an elite audience and the short time available, she should have stressed Thailand's strategic thinking on the whole comprehensive connectivity plan - with Thailand as the hub – agreed to at the East Asia Summit in Bali last November. After all, under the EAS frame, East Asia means Asean, India, the US, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea. This framework links India to both the mainland and Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia with hundreds of infrastructure projects.
Following her speech, during the question and answer session with Klaus Schwab, the WEF founder, other Asean colleagues from Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos did well in replying to questions from Klaus on their dreams for Asean in the next five years. They were wise to respond in their own languages without stumbling for words. Interpreters gave precise English versions of their answers. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wanted to see an Asean that is economic and politically strong and integrated so it can contribute to the global community. Prime Minister Nguyen Trans Dung reiterated the importance of attaining the three pillars of an Asean Community and the benefits it would bring, while the Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong focused on narrowing the developing gap between Asean members and their unity. These were excellent answers based on the theme of connectivity, which they spoke about earlier. Only Yingluck, who chose to speak in English, did poorly. Her few English sentences were awful and incoherent, as she had no idea what she was talking about, even though she had just finished reading the speech about Asean and its connectivity. Indeed, she could have repeated those few sentences again and they would easily have made up the whole answer. Instead, she rambled on about Asean without any focus. Worse of all, she thought that the citizens of 10-Asean states, estimated at 600 million, represents half of the world's population.
While the host was a loser, the greatest win for the WEF was the last-minute decision to have Aung San Suu Kyi, in place of President Thein Sein, as one of its speakers towards the end. The opposition party leader from Myanmar was given full attention and the best hospitality from the Thai government and event organizers.
It was strange that former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who last year invited the WEF to hold its event here in the first place, was not invited to speak as the Thai opposition leader. Abhisit, a WEF veteran, could have helped the government articulate challenges that Thailand faces at the moment. Sadder still, Yingluck forgot the day when she expressed appreciation for Abhisit's early acknowledgement of his election defeat – just a few hours after polling closed last July, immediately quelling rumours of a possible coup. This time around Yingluck did not have the same decency and openness to reciprocate.
With the Thailand in disarray, the WEF turned out to be a God-sent opportunity for Suu Kyi to demonstrate her intelligence and charm and capacity to lift Myanmar's profile. Her words of wisdom and grace on display during her first foreign visit made strong impressions on top business leaders and the international community at large. It was not surprising that the WEF on East Asia will next year be held in her country. As such, it is a big stamp of approval and confidence in the fine outlook for that country, which just a few months ago was shunned by the global community. It is Suu Kyi's magic that has generated such goodwill and the very warm reception.
When she spoke and met with the migrant workers in fishing industries in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon, she touched on one of the most sensitive issues in Thai-Myanmar relations. More than 40,000 Myanmarese – both registered and unregistered – work day and night for fishing trawlers and markets in this coastal province. Throughout recent decades, nobody paid any attention to their plight as modern slaves working for minimum wages and facing daily abuse and corruption, due largely to the lack of proper law enforcement.
She wisely urged her fellow citizens to understand the Thai judicial systems and encouraged them to educate their children during their stay in Thailand to prepare for the future. She had done her homework well. At the WEF, she also called on the international community to help her country's youth get a better and balanced education and development – something that the Thai leaders neglected and did not understand.
Of course, it is politically incorrect these days to comment negatively on Yingluck's hollowness because she looks good and has never done anything wrong or controversial, as that would be considered an assault on Thai women as a whole. To her supporters, she is still an angel who yields no harm and is very pleasant to look at; it is her enemies who are biased and evil-minded, who fail to see her "greatness" and the confidence Thaksin bestows on her.
Although the WEF did not benefit the host in any substantive way, it did however give us a rare opportunity for Thais in general, and Yingluck's supporters in particular, to distinguish between the leadership qualities of their lady and The Lady.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a longtime commentator for The Nation newspaper on Thai politics and Asean.