Saturday, September 26, 2009

Newin's star rises anew

Thai Takes

ON MONDAY, political pundits in Thailand closely followed the live telecast of the Supreme Court delivering its verdict on the so-called 1.44 billion baht (RM149mil) rubber-sapling corruption case.

A guilty verdict in the case – which involved poor quality saplings, delayed delivery, bid rigging and fraud in a project launched in 2003 during the Thaksin Shinawatra administration – could rock Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s wobbly nine-month-old coalition government.

And as predicted by a defendant (who said he had already received a “signal”), the Supreme Court acquitted the 44 defendants of corruption and malfeasance charges arising from the rubber sapling procurement deal.

Interestingly, even though the other defendants included notable personalities such as former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak, former commerce minister Adisai Bodharamik and former deputy finance minister Varathep Ratanakorn, all eyes were on Newin Chidchob.

Newin, deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister at the time of the alleged offences, was so cocksure the court would find him innocent that his political party had planned a victory banquet ahead of the verdict.

The 51-year-old political playmaker was a former Thaksin loyalist. He and about two dozen People’s Power Party (PPP) MPs left and formed Bhum Jai Thai after the court dissolved PPP, the then ruling party. This betrayal enabled Abhisit, the Democrat Party leader, to cobble together a seven-party coalition government in December last year.

The not guilty verdict is seen by the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt supporters as part of the deal to secure Newin’s betrayal. Another alleged deal was Bhum Jai Thai taking control of the influential and lucrative ministries of Transport, Interior (which oversees the Royal Thai Police) and Commerce in Abhisit’s government.

The media reported that Newin was “choked with emotion” following the verdict. He also pledged to “protect the monarchy until my last breath”.

Tulsathit Taptim, The Nation editor, cheekily described Newin’s emotional state as sounding “like a thankful man who didn’t quite know whom to thank”.

“The Democrats must be the ones who don’t quite know how to feel. A guilty verdict would have put Newin in jail, but here’s a man you would rather have on your side when playing politics,” Tulsathit wrote on Tuesday.

“A wounded Newin is highly dangerous and unpredictable. At a normal time, Abhisit would have been happy to have an angry Newin manipulate things from behind bars, but now the Democrat leader should be content with a relieved Newin trying to fulfil his ambitions (to make Bhum Jai Thai a political force to be reckoned in the next election).”

Now that the rubber sapling case is over and done with, political pundits are predicting that Newin’s political career will be on the rise.

“The most significant acquittal is that of Newin, the de facto boss of Bhum Jai Thai. With the noose loosened, Newin is considered the most powerful broker in Thai politics today,” Suranand Vejjajiva, Newin’s former Cabinet colleague in the Thaksin government, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“Although Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary-general of the ruling Democrats as well as deputy PM and government ‘manager’, remains in charge of the present political coordination game, he will have to make way somewhat for Newin.”

Suranand, now a political analyst, continued: “Suthep has even grudgingly admitted that without Newin, the Democrats would not have been able to form the government and Abhisit would not have become prime minister. ‘Without him (Newin), we cannot stay (in power),’ Suthep once remarked.”

But there is still one more rope around Newin’s neck. He – together with 110 Thai Rak Thai (the pro-Thaksin party which was disbanded after the 2006 coup) politicians, including Thaksin and Suranand – have been banned from politics for five years.

But, sooner or later the man whose father (Chai Chidchob, the Thai parliament Speaker) named him for the Burmese leader Ne Win will overcome that hurdle, too.

Newin, who has survived several political pitfalls, is known as the cat with nine lives.

Two days after the Sept 19, 2006, coup which ousted Thaksin, the military detained Newin for 10 days. On the last day of detention, he claimed he was forced to strip down to his underwear.

That was then. Now Newin is seen as the man who could be Prime Minister.

(Published in The Star on September 26, 2009)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The naked truth

Thai Takes

IT IS a sight not many in Thailand will want to see. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has promised to strip naked if there is a coup today, the third anniversary of the military overthrow of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

“I am in charge of security affairs and I have heard of nobody planning a coup. If there is a coup, I will walk naked (as I) step down. I believe no groups (in the military) want to stage a coup now,” Suthep told journalists recently.

No coup, says the confident deputy prime minister. And yet his boss, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA) to bar protesters from Bangkok’s historic Dusit district (where Dusit Palace, the Prime Minister’s office and parliament are located) from yesterday until Tuesday.

Abhisit justified the use of the ISA to give the military a key role in maintaining law and order, saying a “third hand” may turn today’s street rally by thousands of pro-Thaksin Red Shirts protesters to mark the anniversary of the 2006 coup into a blood bath.

Pitch Pongsawat, who teaches political science in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, laughs when told about Suthep’s pledge.

“There’ll be no coup for sure this Saturday,” he says. “What has happened now is a self coup.”

“In a sense, when (the Abhisit government) invoked the ISA, the government is preventing people from exercising their right (to protest), which is backed by the constitution. And (Abhisit) has allowed the military to intervene in domestic politics.”

The military has no business getting involved in domestic politics, he added.

The naked truth about the invocation of the ISA, according to Pitch, is that it is a preemptive strike.

In announcing that it wants to prevent a recurrence of the April riots (allegedly) by the Red Shirts, the government is using psychological warfare to discourage Red Shirt supporters (mostly from outside of Bangkok) from converging onto the Thai capital to protest against the Abhisit-led government, the academic explains.

Yesterday morning, the military and police installed concrete slabs and iron barricades around Government House (the Prime Minister’s office) in Bangkok in preparation for today’s protest which the Red Shirts leaders promised would be peaceful and “without weapons”.

Yesterday was the second time the ISA was invoked against the Red Shirts. The first was on Aug 29. But the pro-Thaksin movement – in a cat and mouse game with the government – cancelled its street rally and embarassed Abhisit (for jumping the gun).

“Now it is going to be the norm for the government – as long as they have the support of the Bangkok middle class – to invoke the ISA whenever the Red Shirts plan a street protest,” notes Pitch.

The academic questions whether the government will dare invoke the ISA if the Yellow Shirts (an anti-Thaksin movement) plan a street protest.

“Probably not. If they announce they’d use this law on the Yellow Shirts, more (Bangkokians) will pour into the streets,” he says.

Asked why Thailand is still mired in political turmoil three years after the “happy coup”, Pitch says there are two theories.

“One theory says it is because Thaksin has not stopped intervening in the post-coup process,” he explains. “The second says that the coup cannot change the deep structural problem in Thailand – poverty.

“With income disparity in this country, there is a possibility that certain capitalists can capture the heart of the (poor) people and rework (the current elite) alignment.”

Does Pitch wants to see Suthep naked? After a long pause, the academic says figuratively: “I’ve seen Suthep naked and I’m sick of it.”

“He’s already naked. The military has (launched several ‘silent’ coups in the last three years). For example, the government declared a state of emergency to allow the military to crack down on the Red Shirts protest during Songkran (Thai new year in April this year).”

Will there be a coup today?

Surely, the threat of Suthep stripping naked is enough to convince army chief General Anupong Paochinda not to launch a coup.

“Being an international pariah is one thing,” comments Bangkok Pundit, in his Thai political blog on Wednesday, “but having to see Suthep in all his glory will just be too much ....”

(Published in The Star on September 19, 2009)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Payback time for Abhisit

Thai Takes

NOW that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has shifted the national police chief to a desk job, Thais are speculating what the Defence Minister, who is the top cop’s big brother, will do next.

The talk is Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan is disgruntled with Abhisit’s decision to cold storage General Patcharawat Wongsuwan after the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) ruled on Monday that Patcharawat violated criminal law during a police crackdown on the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which besieged parliament in October 2008.

On Thursday, quoting a close aide to Prawit, the Bangkok Post reported that the Defence Minister was “shaken by the transfer order and took the matter personally”.

Big brother Prawit’s unhappiness with Abhisit “mistreatment” of his younger brother has raised question marks over the stability of the prime minister’s coalition government.

However, Prawit denied on Thursday he would quit his defence portfolio, saying the government and armed forces were still on good terms.

Like a lakorn (Thai for soap opera) plot, the saga of the Thai police chief has countless twists.

The anti-graft ruling was the latest pretext Abhisit needed to get rid of Patcharawat.

In early August, Abhisit ordered the police chief to go on holiday in China so he could appoint an acting police chief.

However, Patcharawat turned up unexpectedly on Aug 8 and reclaimed his post.

Subsequently, the prime minister re-assigned Patcharawat to Thailand’s restive southern provinces on a mission and Wichien was reappointed acting police chief.

Despite Abhisit’s efforts to banish him, on Aug 20, Patcharawat, who is 60 and due for compulsory retirement at the end of this month, still managed to be part of the 11-man police commission to decide on his replacement.

On that Thursday, the prime minister started the day confidently, assuming that Prateep Tunprasert, his choice for national police chief, would be endorsed by the commission which he chaired.

It turned out that the commission rejected his choice by a five to four vote (with two abstentions, including Abhisit’s), which the Thai media described as a “big slap in the face” for the prime minister.

“Political pundits are in agreement that Abhisit’s failure to get his nominee for the police chief position endorsed by the Royal Thai Police board was a slap in the face,” wrote Atiya Achakilwisut of the Bangkok Post.

“What the analysts have not yet decided, however, is how much should the humiliation hurt. Some said it should hurt like a House dissolution. Others believe it to be more of a personal pain, at the level of a PM’s resignation.

“And there are some others, like members of the PM’s own Democrat party, who say the jab was unexpected but it would cause no tangible damage to the PM’s handsome face.”

Then came Abhisit’s payback.

“It is believed the government was keen to push Patcharawat out of the picture so Abhisit could have his own way in nominating (his man) to the top post,” wrote Nattaya Chetchotiros in the Bangkok Post on Thursday.

“Patcharawat was among the Police Commission members who rejected the prime minister’s nomination of Prateep. His vote was interpreted as scoffing at Abhisit’s authority, whose leadership was seen weakened by the episode of the selection of the new police chief.”

On Wednesday, hours after Abhisit transferred him to an inactive post at the prime minister’s office, Patcharawat handed his resignation to the prime minister.

The police chief’s resignation and the NACC decision to implicate him in the Oct 7, 2008, crackdown come days before the third anniversary of the Sept 19 2006 coup to overthrow Thaksin.

“It has been widely interpreted that the ruling against Patcharawat will prompt the police to go further into ‘neutral gear’ especially when it comes to their response to protests and riots because they could go to jail for performing their duty,” noted Nattaya of the Bangkok Post.

The pro-Thaksin Red Shirt supporters plan a massive street protest on Sept 19 to mark the third anniversary of the coup.

On that day, it will be seen whether the police will be “committed” to keep law and order. Or, will the men in uniform shift into neutral gear?

(Published in The Star on September 12, 2009)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Discussing the unspoken

Thai Takes

ON TUESDAY, in a packed conference hall at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, a panel of academics spoke about Thailand’s unspoken.

“We’re going to discuss what is unspoken in Thailand – the sensitive topic of the role of Thai military in politics,” said Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) director Thitinan Pongsudhirak in his opening remarks before the start of a public forum entitled The Military in Thai Politics: What’s Next?

Since the 1932 coup which ended absolute monarchy, the military has been a major player in Thai politics, noted Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow in political science at Germany’s University of Heidelberg.

“There have, however, been but three brief respites from dominant military clout: 1944-47; 1973-76; 1992-95,” wrote the academic, who presented a 101-page paper, U-Turn to the Past? The Resurgence of the Military in Contemporary Thai Politics.

According to Chambers, in 1992, following the bloody Black May massacre, the military was at its lowest point in terms of support from the public and palace.

“Fallout from Black May 1992 represented a massive discrediting of the armed forces in Thai society,” he said, referring to street protests in Bangkok from May 17 to 20, 1992, against the government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon that climaxed in a bloody military crackdown.

Then came Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) landslide victory in the 2001 general election.

Prime Minister Thaksin cemented his political grip in the 2005 general election when TRT became the only party to win an outright majority in Thai political history.

“Given the implementation of the 1997 constitution and the 2001-06 dominance of civilian strongman Thaksin across Thailand, civilian control of the military perhaps grew to its highest levels in Thai history,” noted Chambers.

On Sept 19, 2006, the military reversed its loss of political power.

Army Commander Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin launched a coup against Thaksin and established a military government (the first in 15 years).

“The takeover immediately enhanced the role of soldiers in domestic politics,” noted Chambers.

However, the result of the December 2007 general election put a spanner in the military’s plan to dominate politics.

The People’s Power Party (PPP) was voted into power.

“The post-2006 coup military leadership was clearly unhappy with the electoral results – which brought a pro-Thaksin government back to office,” observed the academic.

But the military could not stage a conventional coup d’etat.

“The coup and military government that followed it had been mostly unpopular both domestically and internationally. At the same time, damaging events which occurred under the (military) regime (which failed to solve any political or economic problems) caused the armed forces to be seen in an increasingly negative light,” explained Chambers.

Instead of an outright takeover, the military took a back seat to those opposed to Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s government and indirectly influenced the dismantling of PPP.

According to Chambers, this was done in three moves.

First, the armed forces put little effort into protecting Samak’s government (and later that of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat) from unruly yellow-shirted crowds which occupied the prime minister’s office, besieged parliament and seized two international airports in Bangkok.

Second, the military at least twice called on Prime Minister Somchai to resign. (In an episode dubbed the TV Coup, army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – appeared on television to demand Somchai’s resignation.)

Third, in mid-December 2008, the military indirectly engineered the formation of the anti-Thaksin coalition government of Democrat Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Currently, according to Chambers, the military has found a perfect niche.

“Counselled by (General) Prem (Tinsulanonda, who is a chief adviser to the Thai King and a former prime minister and army commander), working behind the scenes with the generally compliant Abhisit government, and strengthened by the (military-drafted) 2007 constitution, the military has made a U-turn back to 1991 to become Thailand’s crucial clandestine political player,” he wrote.

But the armed forces have an even better deal than the soldiers of 30 years ago.

“They have learned from experience that direct governance will only create negative perceptions of them from society,” the academic explained.

“Instead, indirect domination of civilian governments allows them to augment their autonomy from civilian authority.”

(Published in The Star on September 5, 2009)