Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Saga of Thaksin Shinawatra, Part 3

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Earlier in this narrative I detailed a couple of the programs that Thaksin Shinawatra initiated for the rural poor in Thailand, programs that made him, along with other policies, wildly popular with this constituency. Almost his entire domestic agenda was based  on helping the poor and it helped him to put in place a huge plurality of voters that his political opponents could never overcome. Between the government money that was earmarked for the poor and the money that was passed out at election times Thaksin had an unbeatable bloc of voters in his pocket.

In fact, in the 2005 election his Thai Rak Thai party won a majority of the seats in parliament, something that had never been accomplished before. He could now rule without any coalition partners and any laws that he wanted enacted could sail through parliament unimpeded. There is an old saying about absolute power and what it does and that’s pretty much what happened here. The list of transgressions made by Thaksin’s government is too long to adequately detail and explain here but suffice it to say that the things he did eventually outraged enough people so that a grass-roots movement started to protest against his government.

The scandals that took place and came to light were bad enough, especially the multiple scandals uncovered involving the construction of Suvarnabhumi Airport which opened in September of 2006 (more on this later). But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the sale of his Shin Corporation to a Singapore group called Themasak. The sale – which involved assets including the satellite communications equipment and concession which Shin owned and could have been considered a national security problem – was made with Thaksin and his family paying absolutely no taxes on the over $2 billion dollar price that they were paid.

The uproar that followed this was too much for even Thaksin, with all his money and political power, to weather. Cries from every segment of society, except of course the poor in Isaan and other places, were heard demanding justice, his resignation, his head and numerous other things. The sale itself was so convoluted, involved so many intermediaries and offshore entities that it took months to sort out what had actually happened. This was not the first time, by the way, that Thaksin was involved in a case of this sort. I neglected to mention in either of the earlier parts of this story that at the time of the 2001 election he was in court on a charge of concealing assets. He was supposed to declare his assets when he entered politics in 1999 but he lied about them, placing huge amounts of stock shares in his driver’s and maid’s names.

The case seemed pretty clear-cut and at the time I thought that the court would find him guilty, he wouldn’t be able to take office as prime minister, and that would be that. However, this is Thailand. The nine judges who made up the court voted 5-4 to find him innocent. The interesting thing was, however, that they couldn’t agree on exactly WHY he was innocent and never wrote an opinion that expressed his innocence. But it didn’t seem to matter to most Thais. The just accepted it and moved on, much the same way as most people in the U.S. reacted to the court decision that stopped the recount of the Florida vote in the infamous 2000 election.

I find it so ironic that 10 people – five judges in Thailand and five Supreme Court judges in the U.S. – could cause so much harm to two countries by issuing egregious decisions within just a few months of each other. These 10 people put into power two of the worst politicians that either country has ever had and caused untold grief for millions. Thaksin at least is responsible for grief only in his own country while Bush’s influence has been felt worldwide.

But I digress. Since the uproar was so loud and so sustained, Thaksin did the only thing he could do at the time: he dissolved the government and stepped down as prime minister. A month later another election was held only it was declared invalid by the courts because of political cheating by the Thai Rak Thai party. It would take too long to explain the arcane details by which they cheated but the end result was that the election was voided. This took time, however, and with each passing week and month the chorus of his critics grew louder. Basically, the country had no government during this period of time and so when, in September of 2006, Thaksin was out of the country, a coalition of generals decided, in the finest traditions of Thai politics, to take over. It was the 32nd military coup in 64 years.

Thaksin and his political allies screamed bloody murder but there was nothing they could do. Millions of people supported the action and when the King did not condemn it, Thais took that as a sign (and it’s usually a very reliable one) that the King approved of the action. No one knows exactly how the King felt about it and he rarely makes known his feelings on matters such as this but several times during his annual birthday speeches he did criticize Thaksin obliquely and his words do have a profound effect on the Thai people.

From this point on Thaksin was never to be in power again. The last two plus years have been marked by political maneuvering, public relations moves and often futile gestures on his part. The next installment of this narrative will trace his movements to the end game of his political career.

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