Monday, July 04, 2011

Thaksin still looms large in Thai politics

One Man's Meat


The former prime minister was not on yesterday’s ballot paper, yet the election was seen as some kind of referendum on his divisive legacy.

IN the just-concluded Thai polls, the one figure who loomed large in the minds of voters was the politician whose name was not even on the ballot paper.

Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as prime minister in a coup on Sept 19, 2006, is not even in Thailand. And yet the election was seen as a sort of referendum on his divisive legacy.

“No one haunts and hovers over the Thai landscape like Thaksin Shinawatra,” declared Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, in a talk on Thailand at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok on Tuesday.

“What is it about Thaksin? I know that even evoking his name elicits divisive reaction – some people really like him, some people really hate him.”

To give the audience – who were mostly farang (Thai for Westerners) – an understanding of the “indestructible” appeal of Thaksin, Thitinan brought them on a nostalgic trip to an era in Thai politics when elections did not matter much.

“In the past decades, people would vote. They would sell their vote and after that they would never see their MP.

“Their MP would come to Bangkok and enter Cabinet to gain position, so that they could exploit pork (appropriations by the government for political reasons rather than for public benefit) and commit graft,” the academician explained.

“They would lose legitimacy, the military would step in and there will be a coup.

“Eventually, we would have some kind of a (new) constitution and then we would have an election. And the electorate would sell their votes again.”

That was the story of Thai elections during the period when the country did not have outright military dictatorship from 1947 to 1973.

Politicians and political parties (except for the Democrat, Thailand’s oldest party which was established in 1946) came and went.

But something changed when Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party came in the picture in 1998.

“TRT came in with scientific methods in the elections. They paid for expensive polling (using expertise from abroad).

“They were very methodical in what was to be advertised and how to cater to the demands of the electorate.”

In the 2001 polls, TRT won 248 out of the 500 seats. And in the 2005 polls, the party won by a thumping 376 out of 500 seats.

In 2001, Thitinan said there was an opportunity to oust the telecommunications billionaire.

However, in an 8-7 decision, the Constitutional Court, citing insufficient evidence, acquitted the then prime minister of concealing assets (allegedly under the names of his cook, gardener and driver).

“In those days, the puu yai (senior elders) of Thai society gave Thaksin a chance,” related Thitinan.

“He was going to rescue Thailand from the IMF (International Monetary Fund), restore Thai competitiveness and usher in economic recovery from 1997 to 1998.”

Thaksin, according to the academician, did many things that were seen as revolutionary in Thailand.

For example, reforming the bloated bureaucracy and envisioning a bold foreign policy.

The downside of Thaksin’s rule were allegations of corruption. He hawked the economic pie (his family and friends won government contracts), human rights violations (his brutal war on drugs, which saw summary executions) and many other sins of misrule.

“Thaksin’s legacy is a mixed one,” Thitinan summarised.

Eventually, Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006.

The main justification was corruption allegations centred on the Shinawatra family’s decision to sell telecom company Shin Corp to Singapore’s state-owned Temasek Holdings for a tax-free US$1.9bil (about RM4.7bil).

“What needed to happen after the coup was the adoption of the positive legacies of Thaksin.

“But it did not happen,” said the academician.

“And I asked myself many times – and it is not rocket science (to follow Thaksin’s populist policies) – why they couldn’t just concede that Thaksin did some good things for Thailand?

“But if they conceded this point, it would mean admitting that behind the hospitable and smiling kingdom of Thailand, most people are poor who have been marginalised.

“Disaffected, the poor found a huge appeal to Thaksin’s populist policies.”

In 2007, Thaksin’s People Power Party (the reincarnation of TRT) won the elections. However, with the military and puu yai behind them, the Democrats led by Abhisit Vejjajiva managed to overthrow the PPP coalition government in 2008.

It was extraordinary, noted Thitinan, that Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party – which was dissolved twice (TRT and then PPP) – and its top politicians banned – would win the election.

Thitinan added: “His supporters and many Thais who are not enamoured with Thaksin are going to vote for Pheu Thai because they are not happy with what has happened (the interference of the puu yai) in Thailand in the past five years.


andrew gorilla said...