Chira Sirisambhand, former senior official of the Thai Royal House
Pedro Daniel Oliveira
in Bangkok, Thailand
Educated in the USA and having worked for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, Mr Chira Sirisambhand is aware of the misconception that Western powers have about the current political status in Thailand. Speaking to O CLARIM, the descendant of an old Thai noble family says that politicians all over the world don’t care about people, but themselves. He also adds that the “one country, two systems” policy is not suitable for his country and after general Prayuth hands power back to the civilian society everything will be as disruptive as before. On religious matters, he praises the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity and adds that imams who incite violence should be held accountable.
What is your background?
The Sirisambhand family is an old noble family in Thailand, which descends from the maternal line of HRH Princess Mother Srisuralai, the mother of HM King Rama III of Siam. My father, Mongkol Sirisambhand was a successful businessman, a founder of the United Flour Mills SE. My mother Nenet (née Belmonte Makanas) was born in the Philippines and managed to be a very successful businesswoman, creating a business empire on her own. One of it is The Little Home Bakery, to name one. I studied in the USA from high school until I graduated with a masters degree in Political Science. I served and was a member of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana’s retinue for about 15 years up until she passed away in 2008. I was also honorary representative for Canada in Thailand. I was an entrepreneur, but I am retired already.
How do you see the current political status in Thailand?
It’s the same. Whether it is Thaksin, the Shinawatra family, or the present military regime I believe all politicians are the same. Even so, somehow it seems a little bit different now because the military can keep peace and order. But politicians are politicians whether in Thailand, Portugal or the United States. They are always for themselves because people are not their priority.
Do you think General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the leader of the previous military coup d’état and current Prime Minister, has this kind of mind-set?
Though I don’t know him well, I believe he is a decent person. The only concern is that the people surrounding him are still the same as before. Politicians work for their own interests. The people of Thailand would never benefit from it. They are too far removed from the political system.
How about the reforms that General Prayuth is determined to implement for the good of the country before handing power back to civilian society?
(Between 2011 and 2014) we had demonstrations flooding Bangkok, besides riots and killings. We need to be reformed and we need changes. But there are many Western countries that think we must have an election right away… for instance, the USA is one of them. I am an American-educated person and I am a Political Science major. Besides that, I worked for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.
The United States strongly criticized the coup d’état in Thailand…
The United States is all about “I am the almighty”. This is irrational. You have to look into everyone’s cultural heritage. For example, does the USA have any specific term to translate the Thai word “kreng jai?” There is none! We are different culturally. We were already a Kingdom when the USA did not even existed, because there were at the time only the American Indians who were living in the territory. The British hadn’t even arrived yet. Just because the Americans have money and weapons they assume they can control the world and put their standards into everyone’s head.
Is the Hollywood industry playing a great role in the global Americanization?
I watch American movies. It’s pure entertainment. I watch them and when it’s done, it’s done. I don’t want to live like that, but the young people seem to misunderstand. They watch movies and fantasize: “Oh, I want to be this, I want to be that.” That’s why every type of communication is the most important thing in the world. Internet, TV, newspapers, social networks, everything!
Can you cite any specific example concerning the misconception that the Americans have about Thailand?
I have a funny one. An American political writer who is my friend and works for a world famous newspaper came here during the last big riots and I went with him for the ground work. The crew of that newspaper had bulletproof vests, helmets… Everything was high-tech. I asked: “Are you not feeling damn hot with this weather in Thailand?” His answer was: “It’s required because of the insurance.” Then I walked with him among the demonstrators and I bought “kanom” (dessert), juice and listened to some music, and he said: “What am I doing here? This looks like a party.” The Americans just heard the news and thought that we were killing each other.
Do you still have faith in Thailand?
I have faith. Nevertheless, the outcome of this coup d’état would be the same. We will have reforms and an election, but when it comes to elections in the provinces they [the politicians] still pay [the voters]. It’s everywhere!
What is your suggestion then?
If the State doesn’t play a blind eye on prostitution, drugs and gambling how can they [politicians] survive? This applies for any country in the world.
Thailand was never colonized by Western powers, but throughout its history gave away a lot of lands that belong now to Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia…
That is not true! Siam was much bigger because we colonized those lands. I don’t consider that we lost those lands, but giving back the territory to their originate countries. Unfortunately, history says we lost lands to the French and the British. We really never lost them, because those were extra lands that we got.
Can the model “One country, two systems”, like the People’s Republic of China have for Macau and Hong Kong, be a good solution for the problematic area of the Deep South (comprises Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces) that is severely affected by insurgents?
It works for China, not for Thailand. First of all, the Thai Constitution doesn’t allow the division of the country.
But the Constitution can be changed…
That’s true. But no country will ever be stable if there are too many changes in its Constitution, because one person comes with power and changes what he, or she, doesn’t like. Secondly, do you think China could be ruled with a full democratic system? No way! Can you imagine the chaos that it would create? On the other hand, let’s not forget that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with several political parties, instead of a socialist single-party state like in China.
How do you analyze the conflict in the three problematic provinces of the Deep South?
I am Catholic, but I have Muslim roots from my father’s side. What is happening in the South of Thailand, or in the Middle East, is not because the Muslim religion is bad. It’s because some imams incite the violence. Then again, the Americans are killing innocent civilians by bombing certain places of the Middle East. For me, the easiest way to tackle this Muslim spiral of violence is just to get those imams and make them accountable.
That would be something really difficult to achieve…
When today we talk about politics, and let’s not look only to Thailand, the Americans are in the picture. They always have their hands on everything, but they cannot change Thailand.
How do you see Thailand after the reforms take place and the civilian society is in charge again?
It will go back again to the same thing. Thailand has now three institutions. They are the Monarchy, the Judicial and the Legislative powers. The Monarchy has changed. The military is in the way to be another power. Legally it cannot be, but in practice they are the fourth power.
Do you believe that Mr Thaksin Shinawatra will be back to politics?
He and his family are still aiming for that. But in the past 10 years what has happened to his family? Common sense says that politics is out for his family.
But Mrs Yingluck Shinawatra was Prime Minister before general Prayuth…
It will probably happen again with someone under his (Mr Thaksin) influence. If I were his adviser I would never tell him to go outside the country because for sure even now he could still be Prime Minister.
What differentiates the Thai Monarchy from others in the world?
The Thai Monarchy is a hands-on monarchy and works hard for the benefit of Thailand. There are royal members who actually go out of their way to fully support the development of their country, which they could have avoided and let the government do it. They travel to the most remote areas of Thailand bringing not only material developments, but also health care. With their wealth they could just remain in the comforts of their palaces and live an idle life. Instead, they work hard for the Thai people. I was once surprised by a comment made from a friend from the West. He asked me how much money it takes to maintain the royal family. I did not have to answer the question. He quickly answered his own question, by saying that whatever it takes to maintain the King and his family is so worth it because what they do for the nation is beyond monetary terms! They are a unifying force that is incomparable with the other monarchs in the world.
Thailand (former Siam) adopted long ago Theravada Buddhism as its State religion. The first Catholic priests that set foot in Ayutthaya were two Portuguese Dominican clergymen. They arrived in the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam in the late 16th century. How do you see the relations between Buddhism and Catholicism nowadays?
The lucky part for Christians, not only for Catholics, is that the Buddhism is a very pacific religion. So, they (Buddhists) don’t have any rules to attack anyone else. The Buddhist and the Christian faiths coexist very easily in Thailand. There is no problem, even in Ayutthaya days. The French, who came after the Portuguese, almost converted King Narai (reign, 1656-1688).
When Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka last January he went to a Buddhist temple…
Why not? When people visit Sri Lanka they like to visit Buddhist temples. Pope Francis is human…
It’s not so common for a Pope to do so…
That is not true. When Pope John Paul II came to Thailand he also went to a Buddhist temple. And HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej met two Popes personally: John XXIII and John Paul II.
How about Pope Francis to pay a visit in Thailand? Is anything planned?
Yes, the visit is possible. I think by the Vatican appointing recently a second Thai cardinal is a big honour to Thailand because we don’t even have 500,000 Catholics. The Catholic Church has been in Thailand for a long time. A lot of the good schools in Thailand are Catholic and many establishment people studied in those schools. They respect the priests, the brothers and they know what the Catholic faith is all about. So, they have a special place in their hearts for Catholicism. Nevertheless, it would be better if the Catholic Church makes a step forward to register itself as a legal entity in Thailand.