The senator’s office is modestly furnished, with large old black-and-white photographs of his family and paintings of forests on the walls. He was relaxed and casually attired – “I wear a suit only when I am in the Senate,” he remarked.
Kraisak is a charismatic and extremely intelligent person who loves the arts, music, nature and animals, and who also enjoys tobacco. Before he lit up his first cigarette, he asked politely if it was ok with me.
Senator Kraisak once described himself as “outspoken” in a short autobiography, and he has a vocabulary that many native English speakers would envy. Casually attired, the son of former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan speaks frankly, and critically, about the performance of the government – a trademark that makes people either love or hate him.
His father was Thailand’s 17th prime minister, from August 1988 until February 23, 1991, when he was overthrown in a bloodless military coup led by General Sunthorn Kongsompong and General Suchinda Kraprayoon.
During the 60-minute interview, Kraisak, who was educated in the US and the UK, was totally focused and answered all questions, only avoiding to say how he left Thailand and where he went after his father was deposed in the coup.
Fast-forwarding to the present, Kraisak elaborated on the role and responsibilities of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs: “We are concerned with all important issues related to the international policy of the government. There has never been any entity in the Parliament that has scrutinised government policy so closely as we have been. It seems as if I am most of the time opposing the government, but when we support the government it is never publicised.”
He said that in fact the current government has been very proactive, but that sometimes there has not been an adequate review before certain policies were launched which have been harmful to the country. He gave the example of the negotiations for a free trade agreement with 11 countries, which he said was done without properly studying each case, putting the country at risk.
“The Thai farmers – as we have found out – cannot compete with foreign goods coming in tariff-free. They will be poorer than they were before. We can’t look at Thai agriculture simply as an inefficient sector just because farmers can’t produce cheaper than other countries. If they can’t compete with imported products, they can’t be expected to leave their livelihood for other jobs, because the other sectors are not big enough to absorb them.”
“The government started to use excessive force in the South right from the beginning and that perpetuated the retaliation from the insurgents and allowed them to gain more volunteers and supporters. Now, with the recent government announcement of emergency measures things will get worse. The insurgency has really gotten out of control. They increased attacks against the government officers and the people,” he said.
“The use of massive forces will not mitigate the insurgents, but on the contrary it will probably lend them more support. The government should rebuild its intelligence and regain the people's support and confidence they had during past 25-26 years, when there were no repeated incidents of violence at all. But this is because of the use of intelligence, which came through a trust of the people.
“Now, nobody trusts the authorities. It is a cell-to-cell operation in which the government punishes the entire community instead of penetrating the cells and networks of the insurgents.”
The senator praised some of the government's ideas, but said the implementation was corrupt, misplaced and mismanaged. The programmes to help the farming sector, such as cancelling debts, to have a bank for the poor and a Muslim bank are all excellent ideas. The proposal of turning properties into assets is also excellent. But how all these ideas were applied is a complete misinterpretation of the concepts. “For example, the bank for the poor functions like a normal bank and it is difficult for the poor to obtain help. The idea of loan cancellation is limited to those who owe money to the Bank of Agriculture and Cooperatives.”
On the subject of social health care, Kraisak said: “This has been badly mismanaged and it has created a downside to health care altogether, including for those who can afford to pay. The poor now get less service. The health care people are also demoralised. But this can be rectified, and we support action on this issue.”
The senator outlined his future plans after the end of his six-year senate term in March: “I will have plenty of work to do. Throughout the years – even as a senator – I have been engaged in various things through foundations and non-governmental organizations. This will keep me busy. “Right now, I am very much engaged in arts and culture, collaborating with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to have an Art Centre and working with a network of artists. We seem to have hit the right chord with the governor of Bangkok. Aside from designing and trying to collaborate with artists and art administrators to create this Art Centre and to make it really exceptional, we will also apply the arts to conflict resolution in social and health aspects.
“This is not one of my hobbies. I take this work quite seriously. I think that through the artistic campaign, we will be able to make the government recognise the need to include the arts as a vital part of its policies, and also to develop a better image of Bangkok. The dimension of arts and culture has been ignored in public policy for so long.”
He also campaigns against the construction of a giant dam on the Salween River. “The government has announced its support of a privately funded dam on the Salween River, which is a disastrous policy. The dam will flood at least one-third of the Salween National Park. It will be the biggest dam in Southeast Asia and will flood a 300-kilometre stretch of land on both sides of the river in Burma and Thailand, with tens of thousands of people removed and hundreds of villages submerged. More than 20 percent of the land in Mae Hong Son province will be flooded and Pai district – which is now a pristine tourist spot – will be 30 percent under water.”
Asked about his hobbies, he replied: “I love horseback riding on the trails at Pak Chong in Khao Yai. This is one of my passions. You are there with an animal that is half wild and half tame. There is an element of interaction between the rider and the horse in conditions that is not enclosed or confined.
“I love listening to music and playing it as well. In the 1980s, I only listened to classical music, but now I am enchanted with music produced by people from Africa and from the Middle East, but reinterpreted in the arrangements and in a modern sense. I also love Morrocan jazz and African Blues.
“I am very much involved with Thai musicians like the Caravan group. We are very close – not only personally – I am also very much attached to their lyrics and to the social attribute of their music. I love to be able to play with the band although it is not very often I get the chance.”
When I walked into Mr Kraisak’s office, I was expecting a plush setup with expensive decorations, but it was nothing like that. Located in a low-rise apartment building apparently owned by the family, the furnishings were very ordinary and the place was filled with smoke. Mr Kraisak is a heavy smoker.
There was nothing about his appearance to show his wealth or influence. His manner was open and brusque and he freely expressed critical opinions on a variety of subjects. This was somewhat of a trademark and the reason he was disliked by many people. I was told this before the meeting by people who knew him well, and I must say he confirmed their observations. I wanted to like the guy but there was something stopping me. Our meeting went on for almost two hours.