On Thursday, April 9, the Wharton Southeast Asia Club welcomed one of the most esteemed public policy guests I can recall – His Excellency Pisan Manawapat, Ambassador of Thailand, to the United States. The event marked a continuation of Wharton’s strong engagement with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In March, Wharton Global Forum was held in Bangkok, Thailand. Dean Garrett played a central role in the conference, as did a notable group of Thai Wharton alums, who are no doubt quite powerful in the local business community.
I can understand why Wharton’s administrators want to build ties with ASEAN nations, and Wharton alumni who play leading roles in their economies. According to data from McKinsey, if ASEAN were a single country, it would be the 7th largest economy in the world. However, I am concerned that Wharton’s leaders are ignoring the situation of the Thai people at the hands of their government, which is a military dictatorship.
The State Department ranks Thailand’s government as one of the worst in human trafficking enforcement– alongside Syria and North Korea. In a March article entitled “Slavery and seafood: Here be nonsters,” The Economist describes slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry, and concludes by saying “A broader shift towards respecting human rights seems some way off.”
If you consider ASEAN’s ten member states, democratic government is mostly lacking. Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female Prime Minister, was democratically elected in 2011. She was removed from office in a coup in May 2014, and replaced by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thailand’s army. How should we feel about a military coup leader keynoting at a Wharton conference? Prime Minister General Chan-ocha addressed the 9AM session of the Wharton Global Forum on March 13th. Whether or not you follow Thai politics, his title – “Prime Minister General” – informs us that he is a military dictator.
Mr. Manawapat’s visit did nothing to dispel my concerns. I raised the issue of Thailand’s government with Ambassador Manawapat, because it does not seem that Wharton’s leaders care. I began by reading from “The pen and the sword,” an article in The Economist from March 28:
“A new constitution may well allow for an unelected prime minister in times of crisis—a similar rule kept the army in charge throughout the 1980s. Thailand’s half-elected senate will probably be replaced by a fully-appointed one with more powers—a “House of Citizens”, the idea’s supporters call it.”
I asked the Ambassador two questions: 1) from where does his government derive legitimacy? and 2) what does ASEAN’s economic growth matter if governments do not care about day-to-day activities of their citizens?
What followed was a rather heated debate, in which both the Ambassador and Professor Harbir Singh took jabs at me. My question clearly struck a nerve – the Ambassador challenged me by asking if I knew anything about the Canadian Senate, which is appointed, and said that Wharton should teach students that criticism of governance does not apply to Asia. I answered that my argument had nothing to do with other countries having unelected legislatures – if Thailand is changing its Constitution to be less democratic, isn’t something terribly wrong?
My question received a mixed response – in my experience at Wharton, we are kind to speakers of every stripe. I spoke with several students who were there, including Vishal Gupta WG’15, Thepphan Asvatanakul WG’15, Chananya Rawangban WG’15, and Sirin Akaraphan WG’16. The consensus is that the debate was quite intriguing, but that my tone was too aggressive. I think that’s a fair assessment, especially considering the private conversation I had with the Ambassador afterward. We argued a bit over diplomatic points, but then he said something that I will not forget. Although I could, it would be unwise for me to quote him here. However, I have a better understanding of his personal mission to represent his country as a whole, and of the situation in which he does it. My main goal is not to challenge Ambassador Manawapat. Rather, I hope to motivate Wharton to bring the necessity of democratic governance into its dialogue with Thailand.
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