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Gothom Arya (Int'l Edition)

International -- The Stars of Asia -- Policymakers

Gothom Arya (int'l edition)

Election Commissioner -- Thailand

Gothom Arya, 46, got his first taste of activism as a PhD student in the streets of Paris during the fiery protests against then-President Charles de Gaulle in 1968. "I have been an activist pretty much my whole life," declares Gothom, who speaks English with a mixture of Parisian and Thai accents. For the next 28 years, while teaching electrical engineering at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, he used his off hours to campaign for human rights and democracy. He was a pioneer of election monitoring, serving with Bangkok-based PollWatch, which sent him to Cambodia, Indonesia, and India to observe their elections in the 1990s.

Those experiences serve Gothom well in his current role. He is one of Thailand's five Election Commissioners, appointed under the new constitution to clean up notoriously dirty Thai politics. He knows what makes free and fair elections, and he's trying to make them happen in Thailand. "I spent my life in education, and this job is more or less about educating," he says.

The most outspoken of the commissioners, Gothom is emblematic of the change that is sweeping through Thailand's electoral system. After elections in March, the commissioners barred an unprecedented 78 of 200 parliamentarians from taking office because of suspected vote-buying and then ordered new polls. When not investigating electoral abuse, Gothom now visits rural villages, preaching against the evils of vote-buying.Return to top


A Chat with Gothom Arya

Gothom Arya, one of Thailand's five Election Commission members, has been working to clean up Thai politics and the electoral process. He recently spoke to Business Week Asia Correspondent Frederik Balfour. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:Q: How did you get involved in the political cleanup campaign?

A: I've always been an activist. I was in the streets of Paris in 1968. I was one of the pioneers of election monitoring in the Thai general elections of 1992, then again in '95 and '96. I also helped set up PollWatch [an international election-monitoring agency based in Bangkok]. We operated in the spirit of an NGO, but we were more combative. I was formerly with the Union for Civil Liberty as an adviser and with the Forum on Asian Regional Human Rights.Q: You have been a university professor all that time?

A: Having worked at the university, one always has lots of time to do other things. I more or less started the human-rights movement here. When I joined the Election Commission in 1997 after the new constitution, I had to quit my university job.Q: In the March senatorial elections, 78 people were disqualified after the vote. How did you find out about election abuses?

A: Even before Election Day people were crying foul. We have lots of sources of information: NGOs who monitor the election, provincial election commissioners, teams of investigators we send out to some provinces. And in this office, people telephone, fax, send letters, or even come in person. But we had no fixed idea beforehand of how many candidates and districts were involved.Q: Then how did you decide whom to disqualify?

A: Not only did we do some investigation, we also invited 108 candidates to testify before the commission directly. Thirty were declared senators, and 78 did not pass. Three could not stand [for] reelection. Now we have decided to sue the three in the civil case for damages the state has to spend on organizing reelection. They will automatically face criminal prosecution, too. Q: Has your office felt any pressure?

A: There have been some incidents of intimidation but no report of direct threats. We have to touch wood. But if somebody decides to use violence, that decision is irrational. I would like to make reasoning here: Suppose they use physical violence against us, it won't help them be reelected.Q: How would you characterize Thai politics?

A: You can use the words "money politics" or patronage, but the big picture obviously is that the system is nontransparent and is conducive to corrupt practices.Q: Then did you think the first-ever senatorial elections were successful?

A: I'm pleased with the turnout for elections of 72%. That means that more people are participating. I think we confirmed that the process of political reform is going on.Q: You are holding a reelection. Is this enough?

A: It's necessary but not have cleaner politics. The next step is to look for cleaner general elections and, in the long run, we need a sustained political education campaign because this is what I think is political sociology. But again, a political education campaign is necessary but insufficient. If our political system can deliver a sense of empowering people and result in a fairer distribution of resources, then the people will have the concept and the full stomachs. If you have a good concept with empty stomachs, it won't work.

It's not just to do with national politics but local politics. This money politics and patronage system is working now at the local level, even more intense -- and the local politics is more or less connected with the national politics. We have to explain the whole concept of empowerment and how local corruption is protected by the system. This is difficult...but we have no choice if we want to reform. But you have to do it, though it takes a lot of effort and time. And you have to have a positive view of human nature or you give up easily.Q: How are political change and economic change linked?

A: Political change has smaller time constraint, while economic and social change have a larger time span. To analyze the effect we need some time, but the decisive step will be for the general elections. Although the Senate election is a component of the reform, the crunch will be for the general election, it will have far reaching consequences on businesses, powers that be, on bureaucracy and so on.Q: Will this make business more open?

A: Corporate transparency is very connected to everything we are talking about. The problems faced by business is that they have to deal first with bureaucracy. Who decides? Who to ask for tea money?

Supposedly politicians are behind this. If we can empower people and have checks and balances which are independent and efficient, then politicians have to be careful, and bureaucracy has to be careful and not feel too sure of their protection, or not too fearful of retaliation if they decide to be honest.Q: What political system of democracy do you think Thailand should emulate?

A: In the past, the U.K. was the cradle of democracy. There were a lot of problems related to elections, then society evolved. But then you still cannot say that U.K. has rid of itself of corrupt practices related to politicians. Money politics in other forms still happens everywhere so I don't think we should try to emulate any model but should study those models and, more importantly, the social conditions that underline those models and think harder for ourselves.Q: How does the income divide affect the possibility for more transparency and democracy?

A: The income gap is an aggravating factor, but there are other factors, like the way we organize our social activity, which is more vertical than horizontal. It's very much conducive to the patronage system, and the technological driving force is what I think is one of the most important factors of our time.Q: What about educating people about the evils of vote-buying.

A: This is related [to what I do]. I spent my life in the education field, and this job is more or less education.Return to top

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