Monday, November 16, 2009


Tragedy or comedy, the epic story of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's deposed PM on the lam, is worthy of a Shakespeare, a Molière, or perhaps the Coen Brothers. An interview last week in the British Timesonline and a short visit to neighboring Cambodia, where he has been appointed financial adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, has generated a perfect storm of apoplexy among those Thais not wearing red shirts.

Thaksin "is using a helping hand from a neighboring country as a tool to overthrow the monarchy and the Thai government," Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said Friday in Bangkok. The People's Alliance for Democracy (an ironic name for the mob of yellow shirts that has brought down several governments) held a rally in Bangkok yesterday that drew 15,000, and issued an announcement in English: "We declare that Fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra has now become an enemy to the Kingdom of Thailand. He has become a traitor to his motherland by threatening Thailand’s national security and becoming an antagonist to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. He has conspired with the enemy in undermining Thailand’s dignity." A bomb, or probably a large fire cracker, exploded during a speech by right-wing media baron Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the PAD's New Politics party, injuring several people. (He called for the annihilation of "traitors.") Thaksin, on his web site, said that his domestic political opponents are suffering from “false patriotism” in their disagreements with Cambodia.

The week began with continuing fallout from the arrest of several people for allegedly causing a 7% drop in the Thai stock market a month ago by spreading rumors about the King's health. The Wall Street Journal editorialized against the "broad net cast over internet users" by the Computer Crimes Act and lèse-majesté laws:
We don't know whether any of these people violated Thai laws. But we do know that their arrest sends a powerful message to all Thais about the risks they face for posting information online. This is stifling not only to political discussion, but also detrimental to investors at home and abroad who rely on that information to make investment decisions.

Many analysts say that the stock market dip in October took place because of an information vacuum about the health of the King; in such an environment, rumors spread quickly. But the solution is to have more information, not less.

Then Thaksin, from his exile in Dubai, gave an interview to Richard Lloyd Perry, Asia editor of London's Timesonline. The original story published Monday was quickly blocked by Thailand's internet censor because of an inflammatory headline, but the full transcript is still available here. It's difficult for the uninitiated to understand why it provoked such outrage. Thaksin ruminates about a future after the end of the King's reign and even praises his heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. According to a spokesman for Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit, “the comments in the interview were offensive to the royal institution." Foreign Minister Kasit said Thaksin's interview "violates the monarchy, which is the country’s main institution,”and said the Justice Ministry would consider whether to charge Thaksin with lèse-majesté on top of the two-year prison sentence imposed upon him in absentia for a real estate transaction when he was prime minister. Timesonline editorialized that "the Thai laws of lèse-majesté have always been excessive. They now look childish, too."

Thailand is an exciting, modern, forward-looking nation, but nothing jars with this quite so much as the antiquated prohibition against discussing the monarchy in anything but the most fawning and platitudinous terms. At times, the country can seem less like a constitutional monarchy and more like a personality cult. This benefits nobody, not even the royals themselves...Thailand can only benefit from a free and frank discussion of its own system of government. Scrutiny need not entail disrespect.
After the hullabaloo over the interview erupted, Thaksin denied everything. He claimed the Timesonline story was "distorted" and "untrue," even though a recording of the conversation was transcribed by his own press representative. In a letter published in The Times, Thaksin writes: “Accusations that I am against the monarchy have been used by my political enemies in Thailand many times in attempts to discredit me. They will not succeed for I am and always will be a faithful and loyal servant to the King.” A commentator in the Bangkok Post wrote that "several people who have read the full transcript of Thaksin’s interview do not find any remarks offensive to the monarchy. But for many Thais, any public discussion about the succession is deemed offensive and inappropriate to the reigning monarch.”

Then came Thaksin's dramatic visit to Cambodia where he played golf with his old friend Hun Sen, addressed a group of businessmen in Pnom Penh, and met with tourists (see below) and hundreds of Thai supporters near the ancient temples of Angkor Wat near the border in Siem Reap, including 70 members of parliament from the Puea Thai party, second reincarnation of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party Thaksin founded in 1998. Thailand requested Thaksin's extradition as a convicted criminal; Hua Sen refused, saying the conviction for corruption was purely political. The official response said Thaksin had been forced from office although he had been “OVERWHELMINGLY and DEMOCRATICALLY elected by the Thai people.” (caps in the Cambodian original) Then Thailand withdrew its ambassador and Cambodia did the same. Thailand tore up a joint maritime oil-exploration treaty negotiated during the Thaksin era. According to The Economist, Thaksin described Hun Sen "as a pal of 20 years who 'dares to say the truth to the world' about his ill treatment. Actually, the two men have not always seen eye-to-eye. But both see themselves in a similar light, as bluff sons of the soil, surrounded by royalist enemies." But even some red shirt supporters have their doubts about this alliance. "Many Thais see Hun Sen as the kind of oafish strongman they do not want anymore in their own country."

Nationalist tensions remain high between the two countries, given an unresolved border dispute over Preah Vihear, an ancient temple awarded to Cambodia by the World Court in 1962. Some Thais claim this decision was based on an inaccurate map and want the temple and land around it back. On Friday Cambodia withdrew 1,000 troops from the area as a peaceful gesture but Thailand did not do likewise. Sabers are rattling. A Thai engineer was arrested in Phnom Penh on spy charges for allegedly "stealing" information about the plane flights of Thaksin and Hun Sen. Generals have spoken about war, rumors have spread that the borders may close, stories in Thai papers mention the possibility of evacuating Thai nationals from Cambodia. Thais are no longer flocking to the gambling casinos over the Cambodian border. Prime Minister Abhisit, in Singapore rubbing shoulders with President Obama at the APEC summit (their joint photos are all over the Bangkok media today), rejected an offer by ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan to mediate the Thailand-Cambodia dispute. Cambodia is a member of ASEAN but not APEC.

I've been trying to understand the Thaksin saga since I arrived here two and a half years ago. Recently I read an excellent political biography by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, originally published in 2004 and reissued with a new second half that covers the period leading up to the military coup in 2006 and ending with the Songkran disturbances in April of this year. Their final paragraph is instructive: "In the near is difficult to imagine him playing a direct role" in Thai politics. But, given this country's "capacity for surprise," the authors suggested six months ago, it would be "unwise to rule out future incarnations." The events of the past week have certainly proven that to be true. Thaksin is making use of his web site, Twitter and Facebook to keep his hopes alive and encourage his supporters.

Descended from a family of Chinese tax farmers and silk merchants that immigrated to northern Thailand in the 19th century, Thaksin was born in Chiang Mai. Baker and Pasuk write that he "grew up in an environment of wealth, power and privilege," although in his autobiography Thaksin "presents himself as a 'backwoods kid' with a tough childhood." He began his career as a policeman, studying in Kentucky and Texas for advance degrees in criminal justice. While working as a policeman, he operated a silk shop, a movie theater and an apartment building, but none were particularly successful. Before he resigned as a lieutenant colonel in 1987, he started a computer leasing business and then a pager service, making use of influential government contacts. He launched a mobile phone service in 1990 at the beginning of the telecommunications boom with a concession monopoly from the government and was soon one of the richest people in Thailand. In 2001 Forbes said he had an estimated worth of $1.2 billion. In Thailand, according to Baker and Pasuk, the "political regulation of business is the source of abnormal rates of profit." And all of the businesses in the Shinawatra empire originated from government concessions.

Much of the profiteering under Thaksin was not through old-fashioned methods of stealing from the government budget but through deft use of government power to inflate the profits of private companies.
Thaksin entered politics in 1994 and was briefly appointed foreign minister. Although he lost his first election, Thaksin was named deputy prime minister in charge of Bangkok traffic in the Banharn Silpa-Archa government. "He carelessly gave the impression that he had vowed to solve Bangkok's traffic problems within six months -- and was constantly taunted for failing in this impossible task." In 1997 he was again deputy prime minister in the Chavalit Youngchaiyudh government which fell during the economic crisis. In 1998 he founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party (TRT) with a unique platform promising universal access to healthcare, a three-year moratorium on debt for farmers, and one million baht locally-managed development funds for all Thai villages. "Thaksin made a direct appeal to the rural voter with a policy platform. No previous political leader had done anything similar." TRT won a landslide victory in the 2001 election, the first under the 1997 "people's" constitution.

"In the 1990s," write Baker and Pasuk, "Thailand seemed to be moving away from the centralization and repressive controls of the old security state towards more participation, debate, and respect for rights and freedoms." But Thaksin was not the "breath of fresh air" promised. "The unraveling of this optimism was rapid." The media were tightly controlled, protesters were beaten by police and called "anarchists," NGOs were condemned as almost treasonous, Muslim separatists in the south were massacred, laws were passed to stifle dissent, and during the 2003 "drug war," nearly 3,000 extrajudicial killings were done by police. According to Baker and Pasuk, "Thaksin's apparent sympathy for rural protest was entirely tactical. His real agenda...was to suppress rural protests and the organizations behind them."

Nevertheless, "he was mobbed like a rock star" by his fans. "Since Thailand began to flirt with democratic politics over seven decades earlier, no politician had dominated the public life of the nation in the same manner." Others, however, objected to his growing authoritarianism, his enthusiasm for unchained capitalism, and for the "growing evidence of state power manipulated to increase Shin profits." As he "lost his credentials as a reformer, nationalist, savior of domestic capital, and even a safe manager," he used the populist card to regenerate support. He even set a deadline for eliminating poverty: "Four years ahead, there will be no poor people. Won't that be neat?" The rural voter who used to exchange his vote for the promise of the godfather's local patronage, "now exchanged it for a promise of cheap health care and local loans." But the urban elite, militarists and monarchists to the core, were not pleased with this turn of events, and saw him as "a corrupt business-minded politician who posed a threat to the nation's institutions and future." The collapse of the military budget, from 16 percent in 1991 to 6 percent in 2006, did not win Thaksin many friends among the powerful. The end came swiftly when in September 2006 the military deposed Thaksin while he was speaking to the United Nations in New York. "Tanks were welcomed with smiles, flowers and digital cameras," and, with budgets renewed, the generals "returned to their favorite pastime -- buying expensive weapons of questionable utility from countries with lax standards of public accountability."

After the constitution was rewritten by the military junta, voters nonetheless overwhelming elected politicians from the Peoples Power Party (PPT), the reincarnation of the now banned TRT. So then the elites backed PAD's street protests, which included closing the country's two main airports, and a politicized court to thwart Thaksin's influence. Prime Minister Samak was thrown out of office for moonlighting on a TV cooking show, and his replacement, Thaksin's brother-in-law, was caught in the net when the PPT party was outlawed on another legal technicality. At this point, a former Thaksin loyalist, godfather Newin Chidchob, switched sides, enabling a new coalition government to form headed by the Democratic Party with the unelected Abhisit in charge. Thaksin was expelled from his temporary home in England and forced to live on the lam. He divorced his wife, according to one interpretation, to protect some of the family's dwindling assets from further seizure. Although still a billionaire, Thaksin now roams the world in his private jet, investing in sports teams, diamond mines and oil exploration, playing golf with friends like Hun Sen, and keeping in touch with his supporters in Thailand by telephone and video call-ins at rallies.

What is more striking about Thaksin than his consistency are his changes, write the authors Baker and Pasuk. "He has been surrounded by advisers putting ideas in his head and words in his mouth. He has been open to the forces and conflicts of a society undergoing jolting change. As a man of no real principle, ethical or political, he has reflected the forces swirling around him."
On the face of it, Thaksin is a terrible candidate to become a symbol of democracy. While in power he openly poured scorn on democracy as a principle, trampled on human rights, limited the freedom of expression, deployed violence callously, and mocked the rule of law. But just as history handed him the unlikely role of populist it then handed him the equally improbably role of defender of democracy.
It's amazing that this political cipher, so good at dipping into the government trough to reap excessive profits, can hold Thai politics hostage for so long. In a recent column in The Nation in Bangkok, the authors, using the pen name of Chang Noi, point out that people are beginning to see that the intense political division in Thailand "is not caused by one man but a massively unequal distribution of wealth and power."
A simple way to measure income inequality is to estimate the gap between the top fifth and bottom fifth of the population. In countries like Sweden and Japan, where people value the advantages of living in a relatively equal society, the difference is 3 to 5 times. In Europe and North America, it's 5 to 8 times. Among Thailand's Asian neighbors, it's 9 to 12 times. In Thailand, it's 13 to 15 times. Almost all the countries worse than Thailand are African states with civil wars or Latin American states with endemic populist movements. The risks are very clear.
The disparity in wealth is even greater, and they provide statistics to prove it. Likewise land ownership. When you look at how governments raise and spend money, in Thailand "the government redistributes from the poor to the rich." Spending on health, education, and infrastructure benefits the rich more than the poor. So do subsidies on public utilities. This difference does not go unnoticed by the mostly rural poor who see an elite in Bangkok controlling the resources. Thaksin gave them hope, even if it was misdirected, that justice was possible. The Abhisit government and its powerful backers have not yet learned how to harness that rising dissent.

When the school term finally began last week, I had mostly Cambodian monks in one of my two classes. The other class was all Thai, which puzzled me. It occurred to me that the monks from Cambodia must be concerned about all the shouting across the border, although I knew they would not say anything about it to me. So I talked to them about the politicians' argument between Abhisit and Hun Sen and their fellow travelers, and said that it shouldn't change the warm affection Thais and Cambodians felt for each other (the border is a recent invention to divide people). Even though I wasn't exactly sure they should feel safe, I told them that I thought the war of words would eventually go away. I knew from past conversations that monks from Cambodia had grown up under the Khmer Rouge and had seen friends and family killed or maimed by land mines.

Since I'm a guest in the Kingdom, I rarely tell Thais that I like the red shirts and fear the fascist yellow shirts. Before things turned bad last April, I mingled with the red shirts at their demonstration around Government House and found them to be friendly and curious about an American in their midst. Most appeared to be dark skinned and probably farmers, although I know many come from the ranks of Bangkok taxi drivers. After reading Baker and Prasuk's book, I have no love for Thaksin and believe he would probably be a corrupt despot were he ever to gain political power in Thailand again. I don't think leopards can change their spots. The poor deserve justice and control over their lives. Democracy in Thailand is a radical notion.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your insightful review of the situation, Will.

Anonymous said...

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