Saturday, March 01, 2008

On the sidelines, yet inside


ON THURSDAY, Flight TG 603 from Hong Kong landed at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport at about 9.40am. But it was no ordinary flight.

When the passenger who had paid for a one-way first-class ticket came out of the VIP terminal, he knelt to touch his forehead on Thai soil to the cheers of thousands of supporters.

It was a triumphant return for Thaksin Shinawatra, 58, who 17 months ago was ousted in a military coup when he was in New York to address the UN general assembly.

During his self-exile – in between shopping in Hong Kong, golfing in Bali, eating bah kut teh in Singapore and buying Manchester City Football Club – former prime minister Thaksin orchestrated his victorious return to Thailand through the ballot box.

His proxy political vehicle, the People Power Party, won the most seats in the Thai polls on Dec 23 and formed a coalition government that ensured his safe homecoming.

From the airport, Thaksin was whisked to the Supreme Court where he was charged with abuse of power in the purchase of land from a state agency while he was in office, and released on an eight-million-baht (RM860,000) bail.

At an afternoon press conference in Bangkok’s Peninsula Hotel, where he had booked an entire floor to ensure his and his family’s security, Thaksin said he had returned to prove his innocence, not to power politics.

“I will not return to the political stage. I am 59 this year, so I just want to enjoy the last stages of my life with my family, in my country. I will die on Thai soil,” he said.

In an immediate response, former Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang, one of Thaksin’s opponents, described his pledge not to return to politics as a “political game”.

“Thaksin will plunge the country into a greater crisis, one that people will not be able to tolerate any longer,” Chamlong predicted.

Many in Thailand share the same view, and believe that Thaksin will make a political comeback.

“Despite Thaksin’s words of resignation and his stated intention of staying away from politics, he is likely to be the PPP-led government’s de facto chief executive,” wrote Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, in the Bangkok Post on Thursday.

“Thaksin’s impulses are to be the first mover, the agenda setter who dictates terms and shapes outcomes.

“Initially, he will try to stay on the sidelines, but as all eyes are increasingly fixed on his preferences, and as PPP politicians and Cabinet members of all stripes flock to him, Thaksin will not be able to help himself but take charge from behind the scenes.

“He also needs to take control to ensure the in-fighting within the PPP and within the coalition government is contained.”

Interestingly, on Thursday, Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee announced that he had appointed Thaksin as an economic advisor, a move that allowed Thaksin to be on the sidelines but yet inside Thai politics, Thitinan noted.

On the morning of Thaksin’s arrival, The Nation newspaper wrote: “The mood in the country will be one of confusion and divisiveness when Thaksin ends his exile.

“Three years of political crisis, a military coup in September 2006, and more recently a general election, have done little to resolve the deep discord in Thailand.

“Thaksin will still find that while half of the country loves him, the other half hates him.

“Nobody knows how the country will handle Thaksin, who is still recognised as the most influential politician in practical terms.”

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which organised the massive anti-Thaksin street protests that culminated in the coup, warned Thaksin not to try to sway the corruption cases against him.

“If we find they are trying to intervene in the judicial process directly or indirectly, we will not sit idly by,” spokesman Suriyasai Katasila warned.

What’s next for Thaksin?

Thanong Khanthong, The Nation editor, wrote that Thaksin would try to create the impression he is the non-elected leader.

“Over the next five years, all the corruption cases brought against him might not lead anywhere. Then he will make a political comeback,” Thanong predicted.

“In the short term, however, political calm will return to Thailand. A political showdown is unlikely to happen soon. But down the line, there will be some bumpy incidents.”

(Published in The Star on March 1, 2008)