Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chavalit soldiers on

Thai Takes

THE military has the famous saying that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. But in Thailand, where generals can become the prime minister, it may be more accurate to say “old soldiers never die nor do they just fade away”.

One recent example is General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a 77-year-old soldier/politician who was Thailand’s prime minister from 1996-1997.

On Oct 2, Chavalit made a political comeback of sorts when he was named Pheu Thai Party’s puu yai (Thai for “senior elder”). With Chavalit’s appointment as puu yai of Pheu Thai (the reincarnation of People Power Party, in turn the reincarnation of Thai Rak Thai), Thaksin Shinawatra hopes the opposition party — “headless” from its formation in December 2008, it had only been led by a stop-gap leader — will now be able to take on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s shaky coalition government.

A Wikipedia background check showed Chavalit to be a former army chief and politician who, since 1988, had been in and out of various Thai Cabinets (under different prime ministers during Thailand’s era of weak coalition governments).

He was deputy prime minister/defence minister from 1988 to 1991, interior minister from 1992 to 1994, and deputy prime minister/defence minister from 1995 to 1996.

As the leader of New Aspiration Party (which has since merged with Thai Rak Thai in 2001) he became prime minister on Nov 25, 1996. He resigned on Nov 6, 1997, in the face of pressure due to the Asian financial crisis.

His most recent foray into the Cabinet was on Sept 24, 2008, during the administration of Somchai Wongsawat, the prime minister in the People Power Party-led coalition government.

However, Chavalit resigned as deputy prime minister on Oct 7 last year to accept responsibility for the bloody government crackdown on the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt protesters who besieged parliament.

“I have decided to resume my political activities because I can no longer allow the unprecedented social divisions to persist,” he said on Oct 2 after submitting his Pheu Thai party membership application.

What do the political pundits think of Chavalit’s return?

“Because it lacks baramee ( translates the Thai word as ‘charisma’ and also ‘a person with clout, influence and respect’), Pheu Thai has brought in Chavalit as party adviser,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“Chavalit was prime minister during the economic maelstrom in 1996-97 and was seen as an inept, serial fumbler. His only credit perhaps was a willingness to resign from the army to enter the political arena in the late 1980s, thereby playing by the rules.”

Thitinan eplained that Pheu Thai did not have much of a talent pool to dip into after its “main talents” were banned from politics following the dissolution of its two predecessors — People Power Party and Thai Rak Thai.

“Pheu Thai’s appointment of Chavalit is intended to increase baramee for the party and in behind-the-scenes manoeuvres,” he added.

According to Suthichai Yoon, The Nation’s group editor-in-chief, “Big Jiew’s (Chavalit’s nickname) record isn’t so convincing.”

“But Thaksin is apparently running out of candidates to help him lead his Pheu Thai Party,” he wrote on Thursday.

“Even the Democrats seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude instead of giving their usual cynical take against the old soldier who refuses to fade away.”

“The hype about Chavalit coming out of retirement is much overrated,” wrote Avudh Panananda, The Nation’s military expert, on Tuesday.

“The presence or absence of Chavalit is irrelevant. What matters is how fugitive ex-premier Thaksin intends to work his political magic by propping up Chavalit.

“Judging by the numbers of political pilgrimages made from Bangkok to Dubai, Thaksin is the undisputed playmaker of the Pheu Thai Party. Even Chavalit made the trip to meet the man in Dubai before teaming up with the main opposition party last week.”

Thepthai Senpong, Abhisit’s spokesman and a Democrat MP, only had harsh words for the Grand Old Soldier.

“Chavalit is like an old and decrepit car, fit to serve only the Pheu Thai Party, even after being overhauled,” Thepthai was reported as saying.

It will be seen whether the self-exiled Thaksin’s political fortunes will change now that his party has a baramee.

(Published in The Star on October 10, 2009)


Anonymous said...

Chavalit made one other massive contribution to Thailand: he pushed for the drafting of the 1997 Constitution, which was - until the rise of the yellow shirts - considered Thailand's most democratic constitution. PM Chuan kept on delaying efforts to set up a drafting committee, but PM Chavalit was the one who finally gave it the green light.