Charupong Ruangsuwan is no Chalerm Yoobamrung, but in Thailand's political context, the soft-spoken - albeit witty - new leader of the Pheu Thai Party seems to have hit the ground running. During a two-hour meeting with Nation Multimedia Group executives
Combining satire and respect for opponents may be one of Charu-pong’s strong points. “It’s old wine in an old bottle with just a new cork,” he said of the Pitak Siam movement, which is gearing up to hold what threatens to be the biggest anti-government protest to date on November 24, one day before the no-confidence debate begins. “We are watching them closely and never under-estimate them. The lesson was learned in 2006.”
Thaksin Shinawatra failed to contain yellow-shirt protests when he was prime minister. The rest is history. Charupong said the government would do its best to make sure that wouldn’t be the case. He trusts the military to stay in the barracks but admits that there are too many factors involved to completely dismiss the possibility of another coup. At
the risk of sounding a bit like Abhisit Vejjajiva when the red shirts were descending on Bangkok in early 2010, Charupong vowed to let Pitak Siam rally “as long as it’s within the scope of the law”. He beat several favourite contenders to take Pheu Thai’s helm after Yongyuth Wichaidit became a high-profile casualty of the Alpine golf course scandal. Whether Charupong was prepared for the job is one thing; whether he’s prepared to counter questions portraying him as a nominal figure is another.
“How much say does a Pheu Thai leader have when it comes to a Cabinet reshuffle?” he was asked. Refusing to fume, he replied: “Changing the Cabinet formation regularly is our corporate culture, so to speak. [To explain the rotation] we have a lot of qualified people in the party. On how much say that I have had about the look of the new Cabinet, let’s just say I was right about more than 50 per cent of the changes.”
He stood firm on the “merits” of the rice price-pledging policy, but conceded that some key changes are needed to tighten up the loose ends. For example, the programme has inadvertently excluded the very poor farmers who don’t have title deeds to qualify themselves for full benefits of the scheme and this has to be corrected. Instead of waving off corruption as a trivial problem in the programme, Charupong acknowledged it and declared graft as priority problem to be tackled when the government goes ahead with the new phase of the policy.
The new Pheu Thai leader expects the opposition Democrats to pull no punches against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the upcoming censure debate, saying the omission of the commerce minister from the censure motion despite the rice controversy indicated a clear intention to single her out. But he warned that, before asking Yingluck questions, the Democrats should first tackle the uncertainties surrounding Abhisit’s MP status following his “removal” from the Army.
The Defence Ministry’s dishonourable discharge of Abhisit, who was given the rank of sub-lieutenant for serving as an Army lecturer, has raised constitutional questions about his MP status. He has denied using any falsified documents to get the lecturer job, which effectively helped him avoid conscription.
Charupong all but confirmed questioning whether Abhisit is constitutionally fit to lead the grilling of Yingluck. “If the Constitution clearly prohibits it, it’s interesting to see how they can do it,” he said.
When it comes to Thaksin, his ultimate boss, diplomacy goes out the window. “I’d like to do anything I can to bring him back home. That’s justice. He’s a Thai and has a lot of good points, so he belongs in Thailand. It’s just about the question of timing.”
When pressed on “What’s the
best timing”, even a witty man like Charupong seemed to be at his wits’ end, though. And he virtually laughed off the question.