Interview with former New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger

On his visit to Thailand during the 60th Anniversary year of Thai-New Zealand diplomatic relations, the Right Honorable Jim Bolger, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1990 to 1997, granted the following interview to Prachatai, facilitated by the Project for a Social Democracy. The interview covers development in Khon Kaen, Thai-New Zealand relations, the AEC and aid, cultural rights promotion, the TPP, corruption, the state of Thai politics, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the Deep South.

Photo courtesy of the Mekong Institute


Why have you made Khon Kaen a focus of your visit and of the anniversary?

I am visiting Khon Kaen to participate in the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Mekong Institute. I was New Zealand Prime Minister when the Mekong Institute was established, as a joint endeavor between New Zealand and Thailand, 20 years ago.  Even then our two countries could see the importance of building cooperation across the countries in the Greater Mekong Sub‑region, and helping to build public servants’ capacity to develop and deliver policy for their countries.  And of course New Zealand’s links with Khon Kaen are much older:  New Zealand helped to build some of the first buildings at Khon Kaen University, most notably the hospital building at the medical school. 

It’s been good to go back to my old university [the Rt. Hon. Jim Bolger holds an honorary doctorate from Khon Kaen University] to see old friends, see that everything is working well, and to see new and exciting opportunities for collaboration between KKU and New Zealand Universities.  We are considering possibilities such as joint degrees to continue the exchange of ideas and the strong history of cooperation.

What have been the highlights of your premiership and Thai-New Zealand relations?

My first exposure to Thailand was in 1973-1974, soon after I was elected a Member of Parliament. I have had an interest in Thailand since then. During my premiership, the establishment of the Mekong Institute [at Khon Kaen University] was the real highlight.  New Zealand and Thailand had a shared vision about the potential of this region – and we were prepared to put our money where our mouths were. And look at what a success it has been.  It’s really something that New Zealand and Thailand can be proud of. But the New Zealand-Thailand relationship is much older, and without doubt one of the high points of the relationship was the visit to New Zealand by Their Majesties in 1962.  Many New Zealanders of my generation still remember that visit fondly.

Another high point is the way that Thailand and New Zealand support each other in times of trouble. New Zealand contributed to the regional response following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.  And New Zealanders will never forget the generous support from the Thai Government after the devastating earthquake in Christchurch in 2011. There have been many other high points in the relationship, including the conclusion of the New Zealand-Thailand Closer Economic Partnership in 2005.  Since then, our bilateral trade has doubled.

Despite the arrival of the ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN clearly consists of two tiers, the less developed and the more developed economies. How has New Zealand worked with ASEAN to help develop the AEC in terms of reducing the development gap?

In the ASEAN region, New Zealand’s Official Development Assistance programme reflects ASEAN’s own priorities, including narrowing the development gap.  In practice, this means that we target the majority of our assistance to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.  Last November the New Zealand Prime Minister announced a $200 million dollar package of Official Development Assistance for ASEAN, to be delivered over the next three years.  This package includes assistance across agricultural development, Disaster Risk Management; renewable energy; and human resource development.  I’m proud to say that we anticipate over 50% of that package being delivered in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. 

Do you expect anything in return for aid?

We don't do it in exchange for a return. We do it to assist countries which need support. Most of our development assistance goes to small island nations in the Pacific, near New Zealand. It's part of our history to assist when we can. It’s not our style to dictate to anyone, and if we did I doubt it would work – we’re too small!

New Zealand is lauded for its enlightened adoption of cultural rights and a sophisticated solution to the issue of indigenous rights. What insights can you offer?

Let me start by saying that it is not New Zealand’s style to lecture our friends. We offer our perspectives and experiences in the hope they might offer some useful insights.  And we also listen carefully to our friends’ perspectives and experiences, which can enrich New Zealand’s approach to certain issues.

What we are trying to resolve in New Zealand dates back to 1840 and the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed by Māori rangatira, or chiefs, and representatives of the British Crown in 1840.  The Treaty set forth noble goals, many of which New Zealand governments ignored for the first few decades. However, government and Māori are now working together, sharing, and recognising each other's contribution. We have devised some quite radical solutions.  For example, instead of people owning a park, maybe a park can own itself? Thus, it is not a question of ownership. It is a question of who looks after it, and that is a shared responsibility.  This kind of solution reflects how many indigenous cultures have traditionally viewed land ownership.

One thing we have learned in New Zealand is how important it is to say “sorry”.  Every settlement between the Crown - essentially, the government with Her Majesty the Queen’s representative as the Head of State – and a Māori claimant group is recorded in legislation.  And every piece of Treaty settlement legislation contains an extensive apology by the Crown acknowledging and apologising for the Treaty breaches and the impact they had on the claimant group. This has proven hugely important and demonstrates that, at the end of the day, if you want to resolve something you have to say “sorry”.  Reconciliation – any kind of reconciliation – requires an enormous amount of magnanimity from both sides.

Would New Zealand recommend Thailand joining the TPP?

Membership of TPP is a matter for the Thai people to decide.  I’m told the Thai government is closely examining the TPP and seeking views to ensure it has a full understanding of what the TPP might mean for Thailand.  I would encourage that process.  New Zealand’s experience with free trade agreements is that meaningful engagement with the business sector and with civil society is important.  Governments must listen carefully to their concerns.  From New Zealand’s perspective, now that the text of the agreement has been finalised many of civil society’s earlier concerns have been allayed.  One point that I think needs to be understood: doing nothing is not a neutral option for Thailand.  Membership of TPP would presumably bring a mix of costs and benefits.  Not joining TPP may well impose costs on Thailand as your neighbours enjoy better access to wealthy markets, impacting on trade flows and ultimately, investment flows. 

New Zealand ranks near the top in the world for low corruption. How has New Zealand worked with the Thai government in this regard?

New Zealand works hard to maintain itself as a transparent and open business environment.  We believe that this is important to continue to increase the standard of living of all New Zealanders.  And doing this requires maintaining a culture of transparency in which any form of corruption - or even the perception of corruption - is seen as unacceptable. 

While Thailand and New Zealand face different challenges combatting corruption, we are passing on what we have learned to Thailand where we can.  Every year the New Zealand Government offers scholarships and short term training opportunities to Thai students and public servants, with a focus on good governance and public-sector leadership. 

The Thai people recently voted for a constitution which grants a much greater role for the Thai military and for authoritarianism. What insights can New Zealand offer, as a stable, advanced democracy with a mature multi-party system?

Again, New Zealand isn’t in the business of lecturing our friends.  We have a strong friendship with Thailand.  Strong friendships include the capacity to be honest and frank with each other, and we are able to do that.  We do encourage Thailand to move as quickly as possible to civilian‑led democratic government.

In the meantime, New Zealand is doing what it can to provide constructive support to help Thailand to rebuild its democratic institutions, and to promote political reconciliation. Our experience in New Zealand is that political reform that is imposed is not sustainable.  Reforms are much more sustainable when they follow a process of meaningful public consultation with a broad range of interested groups, including civil society groups and political parties who may hold a very different view from that of the government of the day.

How can New Zealand assist Thailand, leader of the G77, in key UN sustainable development goals?

All countries are faced with the challenges of managing issues in the global commons such as energy, fisheries, climate change, access to water, and so on.  No-one has a monopoly on wisdom in these areas.  And the solution to the challenges of the commons is to work together – none of us can or will address these issues on our own.   We work closely with Thailand on these issues bilaterally, regionally, and in multilateral institutions.

For example, Thailand and New Zealand are both members of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, which brings together 46 countries to find ways to grow more food without growing greenhouse gas emissions. Thailand recently worked closely with New Zealand and several other countries to detain a vessel that had been carrying out Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing in the Southern Ocean, and New Zealand experts have provided capacity building to Thai authorities to combat IUU fishing in their own waters. One of New Zealand’s priority areas for assistance within ASEAN is Disaster Risk Management, where Thailand has significant expertise.

While recognizing the Deep South is an internal issue, how can New Zealand assist as a friend?

We recognize that the issues in the Deep South are complex and sensitive. What we have sought to do, as a friend, consistent with our approach to the broader political conflicts in Thailand, is to look for ways in which New Zealand can offer practical expertise that can, in small ways, make positive contributions in the Deep South.

One example of this is the support we are giving, in partnership with The Asia Foundation, to forensic investigation training for the Royal Thai Forensic Police based in the Deep South.  Through building the capacity of the RTP in this way, we believe we can contribute to building public confidence in police investigations, and the credibility of evidence being considered in judicial processes in the Deep South in particular. 

More broadly, we continue to offer our expertise and support to the Thai Government in areas that will have a positive impact on the situation in the Deep South, including strengthening Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, enabling and protecting human rights defenders, and promoting political dialogue and reconciliation.


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