Thailand's rising tide

Jan McGirk
27 February 2006

Anti-Thaksin protest on 26th February 2006 - Bangkok
Anti-Thaksin protest in Bangkok on 26th February 2006 Photo: 2Bangkok.com

Thailand's populist prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is thumbing his nose at mounting demands that he quit. To gain time, Thailand's wealthiest man has dissolved parliament, paving the way for a snap election on 2 April 2006, three years earlier than required by law.

The political crisis is rapidly ramping up. Thaksin insists on continuing as a caretaker prime minister, while the frustrated opposition agreed to boycott his snap elections and force him to address their demands to resign immediately. The Democrat, Chart Thai and Mahachon parties refused to meet with the Thai leader after he announced he would reject their proposals for political reform out of hand.

Only a year ago, Thaksin rode to victory with a clear mandate of 19 million votes after finessing emergency response to the tsunami tragedy. But successive waves of anti-government protests have threatened to topple the billionaire telecommunications tycoon – just a month after shares of his giant family firm, Shin Corp, were hawked to the Singapore government investment house, Temasek, for a tax-free windfall profit of $1.9 billion.

Thaksin's son Panthongtae, 27, has been chastised for failure to declare all his assets to the securities board, though his deep pockets should make any fine seem trifling, and jail time is unlikely for the scion of the premier. Yet public tolerance for the first family's finagling now appears to be stretched to the limit – at least on university campuses and inside the capital. The appeal of a tycoon with globalised business ethics apparently has begun to wane.

The end of the affair?

In Thailand's biggest mass rally for fourteen years, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters – some estimates are as high as 100,000 – gathered on Sunday 26 February at Sanam Luang, Bangkok's vast expanse of green, wedged between the golden spires of the royal palace and the justice ministry. There is a certain historic resonance at this spot where students demanding democracy were massacred in October 1976 and ensuing violence led to the overthrow of hardline military rulers.

Anti-Thaksin rally organisers have vowed to stage a peaceful sit-in there, disrupting traffic and commerce, until the man they deride as a "square-headed tyrant" hands in his resignation. The atmosphere is somewhere between festival and slumber-party after 10,000 activists spent the night on the lawn, only to be awakened at 4am by prayers and new rants from the stage. Protestors, many wearing yellow headbands, got anxious when a helicopter circled overhead and even more tense when a generator caught on fire, but the flames were doused and crowds remained cool-headed.

Clearly there is a little love lost between the Bangkok middle class and Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party. Since the Shin Corp scandal hit the headlines, the 56-year-old prime minister's popularity rating has plummeted from 78% to just 34%, according to the latest poll by Bangkok's Assumption University. Opponents point to the leader's nepotism, blatant cronyism and conflicts of interest, charging that the current administration, although the first civilian government ever to complete a four-year term, has muzzled most of the media through threatened defamation lawsuits or its advertising clout and has so intimidated the judiciary that the constitutional court's proposed investigation into wrongdoing was a complete non-starter.

But the perception that the richest family in the nation bent corporate law and dodged taxes has riled the middle class. The throng at the rally burst into laughter when a speaker chided that the premier needs compassion "like we have mercy for our dog". He proposed a mock solution for the country's woes: seize Thaksin's assets to use as the national budget.

Pro-democracy activists, trade unions, students and academics demand that Thaksin quit, and many dismiss the snap election as a ruse to calm the political waters and ensure he keeps his grip on power. At the same time, Thaksin's masterfully-timed manoeuvre probably cut participation in the rally by half.

When Thaksin, a brash ex-policeman educated at Sam Houston University, Texas, first took office in 2001, Thailand still was reeling from the Asian financial crisis of 1997-99, but it took only a couple of years before Thailand's recovery got underway. His popularity reached a zenith and his law-and-order posture enhanced his tycoon status. A few critics condemned Thaksin for inserting his compliant relatives into key positions – his cousin, General Chaisit Shinawatra, was appointed army chief and then supreme commander of the combined armed forces, while his brother-in-law Priawpan Damapong acts as deputy chief of the national police.

Yet despite this patronage and his highhandedness, Thaksin, who touted himself as the nation's CEO, was allowed great latitude as prime minister. What abruptly burst the protective bubble which had kept his critics silent was the possibility that insider trading had tainted the Shin Corp "deal of the century" responsible for turning the Thaksin progeny into billionaires.

On the eve of the sale, Thaksin's son and daughter bought an 11% stake in Shin from an offshore company aptly called Ample Rich for just one baht (2.5 cents) a share, then sold to the Temasek-led group for nearly fifty times their cost. The authorities ruled that this cunning deal was legitimate. Though the prime minister personally adhered to the letter of the law, this sale has raised ethical concerns among many Thais. Others worry because a major utility – comprising mobile phones, broadband internet, satellites, and even an airline – is now controlled by a foreign power. Thaksin has suddenly gone all paternal, explaining coyly that the shares were sold off because "the kids would like their dad to devote himself completely to politics."

Thaksin's bag of tricks

But few people seriously believe that the political career of Thailand's most adroit businessman is dead in the water. "That Thaksin has more moves than a one-legged crab", marvelled Nok Jareonsri, a cashier watching a televised news conference at a Silom bar. The prime minister has been skilful in scuttling away or deflecting concerns on a range on issues: alleged human-rights abuses, his initial cover-up of avian-flu outbreaks, and cackhanded attempts to staunch separatist bloodshed in Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces.

The latest clever sideways move came on Friday 24 February, when Thaksin met pre-emptively with the constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in order to reshuffle his cabinet and get approval to dissolve parliament and call a snap election a full three years early. Backed against a wall, the leader is suddenly resilient.

The majority of Thais live in the countryside, and Thaksin has been lavish in doling out low-cost medical care and low-interest loans aimed at improving rural life and easing the sense of discrepancy between wealthy urbanites and "ordinary" Thai rice-farmers and rubber-planters. On Friday, the old-style populist was seen courting his rural support base as if he were launching a re-election campaign – which, it transpires, is exactly what he was doing.

Thaksin exhorted a crowd of 3,000 ecstatic farmers: "If you are sick of me send me home. But if you want to continue using me, vote for me and I will work for you." The subtext is that the premier's loyal supporters can expect the largesse he provides to his own family, originally silk merchants from the northern city of Chiang Mai, to trickle down. Thaksin kept hard at his charm offensive over the weekend by donning a red jacket and giving away more than 800 houses to impoverished families, as well as meeting selected business executives and government officials; sudden pay-rises for civil servants and new tax-breaks for street-hawkers, office-workers, and professionals will soon be on the cards.

Jan McGirk is southeast Asia correspondent for the Independent

Also by Jan McGirk in openDemocracy:

"Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand" (April 2005)

"Bali's message of dialogue" (August 2005) – this article contains the full text of the interfaith "Bali Declaration" of July 2005

"Bali's agony, Thailand's turmoil" (October 2005)

"Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake"
(October 2005)

"Thailand's endemic insurgency"
(November 2005)

"Western NGOs and the tsunami test"
(December 2005)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

A Bangkok chorus

Some economists scorned this flurry of new promises as ill-conceived and overpriced. Meanwhile, Thaksin's former political mentor, the charismatic Major-General Chamlong Srimuang, is now eager to oust Thaksin. "The government is using taxpayers' money to shore up its sinking popularity", Chamlong accused. "This rally will last until the prime minister quits", he added. "We will eat and sleep (at Sanam Luang), but I don't know for how long."

Chamlong encouraged the Thai people to take to the streets and added that his big regret was bringing Thaksin into politics in the first place, akin (he told the crowd) to "releasing a troll from a dungeon. The time is now ripe to bring the giant back to the den and lock him up."

Chamlong's record as head of the "people power" revolt in 1992 against Thailand's military rulers in which almost fifty people died meant that his prominent speeches touched off fears, so far unfounded, that Sunday's peaceful anti-government rally would escalate into a bloody confrontation. A blast had ripped through the headquarters of Chamlong's pious Santi Asoke sect (known as the "Dharma Army") – though it did little damage and did not dissuade these anti-materialist but no-nonsense Buddhist monks and nuns from taking part in the rally. But riot-police and water-cannon were at the scene of the mass gathering, with a total of 20,000 security forces on standby.

Another veteran of Thailand's pre-Thaksin political tumult – retired General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who led a coup against a civilian government, appointed himself head of state, only to be driven from office partly as a result of Bangkok's 1992 street riots – warned protestors taking to the streets on this occasion. Should angry demonstrators start marching, "it shows that they are ill-intentioned and it could cause a confrontation", he told the Bangkok press corps. The government "could be easily blamed for assaulting people, which I encountered before." On Suchinda's watch, soldiers had fired live ammunition into the crowd to suppress dissent and forced disappearances became normal during emergency rule in an era known as "bloody May".

Chamlong became the most influential figure in the 1992 events, acquiring hero status after undertaking a well-publicised hunger strike to provoke Suchinda to step down, and bringing the moral weight of the Dharma Army, who continue to be revered for their austerity, to bear on the rulers' excesses.

Somkiat Tangkitvanich, an analyst from the independent think-tank the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), blames Thaksin's recent troubles on the premier's irascible character, which can readily annoy his conservative Buddhist nation. "A ruler must show charity and generosity", Somkiat pointed out. "He must be willing to self-sacrifice. He must have honesty and integrity. He must be kind and gentle. He must be austere and able to practise self-control. He must not indulge in anger, violence and oppression. He must have patience and forbearance and not deviate from the law." Thailand's current prime minister fails to meet the mark, Somkiat concluded (see Nirmal Ghosh, "Thailand: Ethics at heart of furore over Thaksin", 8 February 2006).

When Chamlong declared that prime minister Thaksin "no longer has the legitimacy to run the country", the stakes suddenly got huge. The Dharma Army's humble Buddhist nuns and monks, more than 1,000-strong, were ready to go on the offensive. They marched barefoot into Sanam Luang, and prepared for a prolonged vigil. On Monday 27 February, reinforcements from the provinces began arriving to join them (see Surin Pitsuwan, "Thailand: Two styles of leadership face a showdown", International Herald Tribune, 24 February 2006).

For months leading up to Sunday's enormous demonstration, another wisecracking critic, Sondhi Limthongkul, has been mounting anti-Thaksin rallies in Bangkok's Lumphini Park, drawing throngs of after-work listeners to hear him decry the government's frequent abuses of power. These include shutting down a popular talk-show hosted by the voluble Sondhi himself. The media gadfly once praised the economic wizardry of "Thaksinomics" but has long since changed his tune.

Sondhi's allegations of government corruption, some of them featured in his own English-language newspaper Thai Day, drew criminal and civil lawsuits from the prime minister in 2005. But these cases were dropped after Thailand's king counselled government officials not to over-react to criticism or to consult lawyers too quickly. Said the king in his 4 December birthday speech: "Lawyers tell the (prime minister) to sue, to punish ... Do not punish. Punishment is not good."

Defiant, Sondhi continued to draw crowds with his lively put-downs of the thin-skinned prime minister. Up to 60,000 mobbed the Royal Plaza in January, after the Shin Corp tax loophole came to light, and Sondhi was very vocal at Sanam Luang. Sondhi's quirky mobile-phone ringtone says it all: reportedly, it is his own voice shrieking "Thaksin Get OUT!" Hundreds of thousand more Thai voices echoed that sentiment this weekend, and some predict that this wish is just a matter of time.

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