Chuan says he has total faith in Tarrin
PRIME Minister Chuan Leekpai has reasserted his unquestionable backing of Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda, saying that at no time has he ever doubted that his economic czar had led the country onto the wrong track of economic rehabilitation.
''No, I have never doubted his prescription for the economy, particularly taking into account the big picture, which I totally agree with. Of course, I do not agree with some of the micro pictures which might not have been handled well enough,'' he said.
Speaking to a group of economic editors last week, Chuan did not conceal his respect and admiration for Tarrin, whom he personally invited to join the Democrat Party in 1992. Together with Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi, Tarrin has bolstered the strength of the Democrats among the urban constituencies.
''He is a very good thinker and one with a vision. I know that he really works very hard. His memory is exceptional. He can explain all the things that he has done in full, grasping all the details. But he may be too slow in his talking,'' the prime minister said.
Most Cabinet ministers play second fiddle to their permanent secretaries, at times acting as their rubber stamps, for they rely heavily on top bureaucrats who have been in the civil service for most of their life to make all the preparations for their work.
''Khun Tarrin is a lot better than the permanent secretaries,'' Chuan said. ''In a way the country is lucky that during this time of crisis we have a person like Tarrin to help us out.''
Chuan admitted that Thailand still faces economic hardship although, overall, he is satisfied with improvements in the ''big picture''.
Asked whether Tarrin has ever told him that he would like to call it quits, Chuan categorically said: ''No, never. He only complains about the Manager.''
The Manager newspaper of publisher Sondhi Limthongkul has been bashing Tarrin every step of the way, vowing not to let any stone remain unturned. Tarrin, who is fighting a legal battle against the newspaper, told the prime minister that he has tried to explain all he could to the Manager, but to no avail.
Chuan said he told Tarrin not to feel discouraged because the government came to power during a time of severe economic hardship.
At the grass-roots level, Thais in general are not doing well because of a slump in commodity prices. Although the agricultural sector accounts for only 10 per cent of Thailand's gross domestic product, more than half of the country's 60 million population depends on this sector.
''Most of the commodity prices are not good this year, so it it has affected a lot of people. Last year the agricultural sector performed very well. Rice witnessed an exceptional year last year. So we did not hear of people being hurt by the crisis last year. But this year it is different.
''Another problem we've heard a lot about now is that people are heavily in debt,'' the prime minister said.
He also expressed concern about the trend of foreign companies to relocate out of Thailand after facing labour disputes with local workers. He has been personally playing a behind-the-scenes role mediating in most of the labour disputes and trying to get both the workers and the factory owners to agree to a compromise deal.
''I think Thai people are reasonable enough. But the problem is that if the conflict is not handled appropriately, the foreign company will run away,'' Chuan said.
He cited recent cases involving a leather producer and a Belgian company which have moved out of Thailand for good, laying off all their workers after the dispute.
This trend is dangerous if it is allowed to continue because once a factory closes down the workers would lose their jobs and have nowhere else to go to.
Chuan is presently trying to resolve another labour conflict at the Triumph factory, which has more than 4,000 workers. The prime minister has instructed the police chief to report to him on the progress of the talks.
Last week Chuan was briefed by Tarrin on how the economic rehabilitation plan was progressing. The major problem, despite the stronger macroeconomic framework, is still the financial sector and the bad loans which have prevented the real sector from recovering.
Chuan quoted Tarrin as saying this is ''very serious''.
He added: ''I agree that the problem is very serious. After the finance companies were closed down last year, all business came to a halt. The contractors or businessmen that we used to see around witnessed their businesses crumbling. They all had their businesses tied to the finance companies.''
BY THANONG KHANTHONG