Political Coming of Age In Thailand. A Blog about recent political crisis in Thailand.
Living in media blackout America is problematic. While it’s easier to get news about Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie is easier, getting news from around the world is harder. Which is why I’m proud to be a former newswire reporter, I always like to believe that TV correspondents make entertainment while newswires makes history. The political rumblings in Thailand have been a long time in coming. Even when PM Taksin was elected to his first term many cosmopolitan Bangkokians did not like this man, the self styled CEO-PM annoyed and ruffled to many feathers with his rhetoric. While his antics gave him some amazing approval ratings in the rural areas of Thailand, his popularity in Bangkok was 50/50 at best. But Taksin isn’t your normal businessman, his prior appointments in the Thai government demonstrates that he is as good a politician as he is a businessman.
There is no denying that he is by far and large the richest man in Thailand, there is also no argument that his policies, idealistic at best, are more innovative than his predecessors. The biggest knock on him is corruption and cronyism. Before we can discuss Taksin we have to first understand democracy in Thailand in the last 15 years or so. Thailand is in the infancy of democracy and having some success and by infancy I mean it is barely a hundred years old give or take a few military coups, the Japanese regime during WW II. We begin in 1992 during the bloody May demonstrations we see that Thailand was trying to shed a military regime and install a democratic elected government. Here’s the problem with Thai politics, it’s dirtier than the khlongs in Bangkok. Newspapers are owned and run by bigwigs in Thai political parties, news stations that are biased and also owned by the same bigwigs. And let’s not even begin on the downright censorship in the neutral media in Asia (Far Eastern Economic Review, TimeAsia, AP, et al.). Democracy wins out after the King intervenes and new elections were called with the Democrats taking the Parliament.
Now picture 1997-1998 the Asian economic flu hits Asia first Japan, the Nikkei dropping and brokerage companies and banks claim bankruptcy. Then cascading almost overnight economies all over Asia are on a downward spiral, Thailand’s government at the time tried desperately to strength the baht against the dollar and by doing so drained most of the gold reserves of the country rather than letting the baht float and have the market set its own exchange rate. Millions lost their jobs, the baht’s value was down to nothing and the government was unable to fight off the resulting economic disaster. The result was a bailout by the IMF and World Bank to the tune of 17 Billion Dollars in the initial payment. (Thailand has paid off this debt in 2002 five years ahead of schedule thanks to a resurgence in the Asian economy anchored by China)
Fast-forward to 2000 and Thai Rak Thai party platform which is compromised of former members of the New Democrat Party and Chart Thai Party and so forth and enter Taksin Shinwatra (the US equivalent would be Ross Perot running for President always good for a laugh). They meaning politicians and voters all followed the money and promises of a new Thailand and new policies that would help Bangkok and rural Thais. He ended up winning the election in a landslide and Thai Rak Thai would end up with 377 seats of the 500 parliamentary seats available. The list of Taksin’s promises was long and albeit they sounded good; in reality they were disasters waiting to happen. Yet his one idea that didn’t fail outright which won him his support in the rural areas was his million baht tambon program which promised millions to Thai villages to build the local economy. Well I guess if you spread enough money around you’ll get popular. Yet his other plans, such as the 30 baht medical plan, his policy regarding Thai banks to loan money out at a small interest rates to small businesses and encouraging personal loans to buy TVs, cars, refrigerators and other appliances created a debt to many households with no way of paying the loan. Another policy was shifting financial deficits into a government Small Asset Management portfolio, which in essence hides the debt until it can be paid off, like a write off of sorts. My personal favorite idea was to buy a piece of an English football team (Liverpool). Aside from the fact that I’m a Man United fan, shouldn’t the money go to hospitals? Schools? Job creation?
His public policy is also something left to be desired with problems in the South to the deaths of the Muslim protesters and the subsequent violence afterwards. His social policy in the South seems more akin to pass the guns and ammunition and let God sort them out. It’s no wonder in last years election Thai Rak Thai won no seats in the Southern Provinces. While the South has always been problematic and worldwide paranoia after 9/11 helped shaped this paranoia, the unrest in the South could easily be avoided if Taksin just swallowed his pride and said, “You know? My bad, I’m sorry.” His all out war with the news is also a concern especially after blacklisting two journalist from the Far Eastern Economic Review who wrote an unflattering story about him, to which he levied the charge of les majeste on the journalist banning them from the country. It seems Prime Minister Taksin is living proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
So what is the brouhaha all about now? Why is Thailand on the verge of a potential showdown? Money. As simple as that: money. I never said Taksin was dumb he’s a smart man. During his term his policies both economic and foreign have benefited big business in Thailand, more specifically his company. The 1.3 billion dollars, (that’s US dollars)sale of his Shin Corp by his “family members” to Singapore went through and guess what…no taxes. Reminds me of how hid his money prior to his first election and about 500 million baht was in his chauffeurs account….I digress. His other policies include a satalite deal with China and India and sales of his stocks that went tax free. His idea of privatization of the utilities monolpy in Thailand is also a gimme to his friends in big business. In the past the military would get involved, third world politics is whoever has the military has the government. Sometimes the military would split amongst themselves, however in Thailand today no such luck, Taksin’s appointments to the head of the military in Thailand are old friends of his from his days in school and on the job as a police officer. But is there a chance of violence breaking out? Taksin cannot risk the pr disaster not to mention the sudden halt of foreign investment. His dismissal of the parliament and a call for elections 3 years ahead of schedule means he is willing to let the voters decide their destiny, however he has support of two/thirds of the country’s population in the rural area which he demonstrated by bussing them in as his rallying troops.
The problem isn’t Taksin although it may seem I am biased and I am, its the country’s laize faire attitude on corruption from the bribes we give to cops to the payoffs to politicians and the freebies at massage parlors, government corruption will plague Taksin and everyone else who comes into office, until the laws that govern the country are more than words it can never be a real democracy. They will always wear a “mai pen rai” mask and in the end it’s the people who suffer the most. The ones without voice and wealth, they are the people who are in essence Thailand. Laws must be considered more important than the men who committed the crime regardless of their status or wealth in society. I still have several friends still based out of Bangkok in the AP and Reuters and a few others at different publications and the general feeling is that while it may seem quiet now history has shown things can escalate quickly. The ouster of several past leaders in the S.E. Asia area the last 6 six years has shown that peaceful demonstrations can quickly become full fledge revolutions.
The glaring problem in the “land of smiles” is the small hypocrisies that many people in Thailand are willing to overlook. It’s the small cracks in the system that essential weakens the whole foundation. News outlets and more importantly media outlets must be free and independently owned, anti-trust laws must be enforced, anti-graft laws must also be enforced. Once that occurs, you can begin the process of checks and balances and of leading the country forward. I also think we should kick the multi party system out because having coalition governments seems more problematic than a two party system but that’s for another debate. In the end Thailand will survive like it always has and will of course struggle through with democracy like we all do. Winston Churchill was right, a democracy is the worse form of government possible but it is the only one that works. Change is often painful and in world politics it is downright scary but Thailand must go from infancy to adolescence in regards to a democracy.