On The Rise To Dictatorship, Thaksin In 2002 (1)
( Last edit 2009-06-02 )
Prickly Premier Thaksin :
In an exclusive interview, embattled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra blames the media for seeking conflict and argues that strong government is needed to get things done
by Michael Vatikiotis and Rodney Tasker on April 11, 2002
PRIME MINISTER THAKSIN Shinawatra [then in 2002] strides into the room and, before a single question is asked, launches into a spirited defence of his first year in office. "I am not a dictator," the smiling premier later tells REVIEW reporters in the ornately decorated Phitsanulok House, an early 20th-century nobleman's mansion that now serves as the premier's official residence in Bangkok.
Clearly, a recent wave of criticism has touched a raw nerve. Judging by opinion polls and negative media comment in the past two months, a growing number of Thais--especially the urban middle class--are having second thoughts about a leader they so enthusiastically embraced as a populist reformer when he came to power in February last year.
Real or imagined, Thaksin believes there is a sinister plot to topple him by stirring up trouble between himself and the public. That, he feels, is one reason why he has to act tough. The past few weeks have seen members of the foreign media threatened with expulsion, senior critics among the local media investigated for money-laundering and ordinary people warned not to talk politics with taxi drivers.
Yet the prime minister's position does not seem under particular threat--he has a huge majority in parliament and he still enjoys overwhelming support among the rural electorate. And while some small cracks have appeared within his own Thai Rak Thai party, which heads a coalition government, even members of the opposition acknowledge they are not in a position yet to mount a significant challenge to his grasp on power. Nor is the country sliding toward crisis--indeed the economy is doing better than expected and modest recovery seems to be under way.
But Thaksin is increasingly criticized by the domestic media, academics and politicians for his perceived brittle, authoritarian style and his intolerance of criticism. Editorials have loudly declared that Thailand is facing the threat of dictatorship--this in a country until recently lauded internationally for its free press and march toward democracy. The optimism of a year ago has begun turning toward pessimism among the educated elite, who are also disillusioned at the lack of movement on the Thai Rak Thai party's election promises to help the poor.
"His air of invincibility has been reduced quite substantially," says Abhisit Vejjaijiva, deputy leader of the opposition Democrat Party. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, another Democrat MP and former minister, talks about a "very strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the middle class and commercial shop-house owners." He cites recent by-elections in two Bangkok constituencies, where the Democrats performed better than in the January 2001 general election--winning one of the seats by a narrow margin.
Sukhumbhand argues that it is only a matter of time before public opinion--especially among middle-class circles in Bangkok--begins to turn against Thaksin. This would be significant as the urban middle class is often the leading edge of political change in Thailand.
However, a slip in the opinion polls and narrower margins in urban constituencies do not spell disaster. Thaksin is only a year into his four-year mandate, his coalition has 355 seats in the 500-seat national parliament and he has a tight grip on the Thai Rak Thai party thanks, in part, to a constitutional provision that effectively bars party-hopping. "Thaksin has full control over the party," Sukhumbhand admits, while adding: "Even if elections were held as soon as next year, we won't be ready."
So why is Thaksin so defensive? In his interview with the REVIEW, Thaksin repeatedly talks about the alleged conspiracy to topple him. "Someone is trying to make me clash ideologically with the people through the monarchy. That is very bad. I am wholeheartedly for the king and Thailand." The country's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej took an unusually direct swipe at Thaksin in his December 4 birthday speech, when he talked of Thaksin's double standards and egoism, saying the country was heading for catastrophe.
Asked why his opponents should resort to such dirty tricks, Thaksin says: "They can't topple me using the parliamentary system. They can't do it, because of the people's mandate and my strong leadership." And Thaksin says he is ready to make a rare appearance in parliament to answer any allegations. The premier cites the need to keep the executive and legislative branches separate for his lack of appearances in parliament.
The prime minister acknowledges that his forceful, hands-on style of rule has rubbed some people up the wrong way. "I need to punch things, otherwise nothing gets changed," he explains, adding: "You have to be strong. Sometimes I am too strong and that is my weak point. I never worry about my face, but I worry about the success of the government."
And he insists that, despite the accusations being thrown around, he is not a megalomaniac. "I am not a dictator," says the premier. "I always listen to people, but sometimes I speak too much."
Thaksin clearly resents the unexpected pounding he's received from the press, which he feels is unmerited and unfair. "No constructive criticism has been written. The press enjoys conflict issues," he says, while accusing the local media of being against him because of his past role in business. The country's richest man, Thaksin's fortune is based on telecoms giant Shin Corp., which he founded and which is now run by members of his family.
"Sometimes, some press may have some hidden agenda, which they have had for years. They have not been happy from the time I was in business because they asked me for sponsorship that I did not give them. They attack unfairly. I'm trying to forget. But they never forget," Thaksin asserts, while firmly rejecting charges that he has used his business empire to assert leverage over the media through the group's advertising accounts. "I never asked any press to say something good about me. I just ask for fairness. I don't need criticism--just give me justice, a fair report. The press is now using new sources which are one-sided. I just ask for balanced news, fairness."
He also firmly rejects charges that he has used his political position to support the business interests of his family. "Everything I do is for the people and the country. I am not doing anything for my own benefit," he insists.
A PLEA FOR UNDERSTANDING
At times in the interview, Thaksin asks for understanding. He refers to the recent clashes with the press, including investigations by the Anti-Money Laundering Office into the finances of senior journalists who have been critical of his government. News of the probes, which were exposed through leaks to the media by at least one commercial bank, caused an uproar and questions were raised about the legality of the move. Thaksin describes the rumpus as a "first-year syndrome" and pledges that things will get better during his second year in office.
As candid as he may sound, few political commentators are now so kind about Thaksin's approach to leadership. "Parliamentary dictatorship" is how former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, another Democrat Party member, characterizes Thaksin's style. Surin points to the government's ham-fisted attempts to silence critics and the shunning of parliament. "It's impossible to have politics as usual," he concludes. Meanwhile, Democrat Party MPs have taken to storming out of parliament to draw attention to criticisms of the government, but they do plan to censure a long list of cabinet ministers in late April for alleged mistaken policies.
All this criticism will amount to nothing so long as Thaksin's party holds together. But small cracks are developing. Sanoh Thienthong, a party elder who heads an important conservative faction of about 50 MPs, says diplomatically of his relations with Thaksin: "We're in the same corner of the boxing ring."
But Sanoh, who has held the key to the unity of several coalition governments since the mid-1990s, is known to be unhappy with an article in the 1997 constitution aimed at limiting party-hopping. The constitution sets a period of at least 90 days' notice to be given by MPs before an election to try to curb party-hopping at election time. On March 17, Sanoh's Thai Rak Thai faction proposed an amendment to reduce the period to 30 days, thus facilitating party-hopping within the minimum 45-day period of the election campaign. Change would give him more room for manoeuvre and thus more leverage over Thaksin. "The 90-day membership requirement is like a lock, preventing them from choosing a party more suited to their views," said Sanoh faction MP Burin Hiranaburana at the time.
Sanoh's group is considered by observers to have been recently sidelined from its previously prominent position after Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party agreed to merge with Thai Rak Thai and the Chart Pattana Party left the opposition to join the coalition. These mergers enhanced Thaksin's parliamentary strength and meant he does not have to be so concerned to keep Sanoh on side.
Thaksin is thought to be against the party-hopping amendment, as it would endanger his grip on the party at election time. Elsewhere in the Thai Rak Thai, a group of former student leaders and other activists is too disparate to act as a unified force for change. It constitutes about 100 MPs. Some of these progressives were moved aside in a mini-cabinet reshuffle in February. For instance, former student leader Sutham Saengpratoom lost his job as university affairs minister, and Chaturon Chaisang, a respected economist who held some important economic portfolios in the Prime Minister's Office, was moved to the more lowly Justice Ministry.
At the time of the reshuffle some Thai Rak Thai MPs in Sanoh's faction labelled Thaksin "dictatorial" for appointing Chaturon as justice minister, when he was better suited to an economic portfolio. The Nation newspaper quoted one of the group, Chaturon's brother, Wuthipong Chaisang, as saying Thaksin was being egotistical, but "none of the party members dare speak out against him."
Is there a danger of the general public turning against Thaksin? His grassroots policies, such as a three-year debt moratorium for farmers, development loans to each of the country's 77,000 villages and a dirt-cheap medical-care scheme for all, are not widely considered flashpoints. "The jury is still out," says Abhisit Vejjajiva, but he adds: "There is no fear of the rural people going against the government. Rural people see Thaksin's election pledges as a gamble they could lose--if it works, OK, but if not they are no worse off."
Moreover, the economy is generally doing better than expected in the circumstances. Banks are not lending and foreign investment is slack, but government pump-priming and domestic consumption are expected to see the economy grow by more than 3% this year. Even the long-moribund stockmarket has been rallying of late. Significantly, foreign investors have been net buyers of 18.6 billion baht ($430 million) of Thai stocks so far this year, compared with 8.79 billion baht net selling of Thai equities in 2001.
Where Thaksin does appear to be squandering his mandate is with the Bangkok elite. Thailand's chattering classes are concentrated in Bangkok, where they are influential in the media and upper levels of the bureaucracy--both sections that Thaksin has clashed with. Some observers believe that Thaksin's next move will be to dilute the powers of independent bodies, such as the Constitutional Court and the National Counter Corruption Commission, by amending the constitution later this year. He has indicated as much in the past, but a government spokesman denies such plans. Doing so, it is thought, will prompt a new round of protests centred on Bangkok. As Suranand Vejjajiva, a senior official in Thaksin's office, puts it: "Whatever happens, from now on the prime minister will be criticized by the press whatever he does."
Comment: In fact, having so successful in bribery to survive his constitution court case in 2001, Thaksin opted to bribe on-sale politicians, MPs, Senators, NCCC, ECC selection committees to get his cronies eg. Suchon Chaleekrua, NCCC members, ECC members into key positions to defect any check-and-balance measures away from him.