Thailand junta’s blunders erode public support, raise doubts

A
series of policy blunders by Thailand’s junta has sapped its earlier
popularity and raised doubts about its ability to govern just a few
months after it grabbed power, analysts say.

The military ousted
former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless putsch on September
19, saying the coup was justified because Thaksin was corrupt and that
it would probe alleged graft during his five years in office.

But the army-backed government has yet to produce evidence against
Thaksin and many think it has fumbled the management of Thailand’s
economy, Bangkok’s new airport and its reaction to deadly New Year’s
Eve bombings in the capital.

The Thai public, weary after months
of street protests against Thaksin, initially backed the putsch and
were hopeful that calm would return to a divided nation.

But
public patience has begun to wear thin in the absence of tangible
policy results by the military government. The latest survey showed
army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont’s approval rating had
plunged to 48 percent from nearly 71 percent in November.

“This
government seems so invisible to the public. People are now questioning
whether the government is doing anything at all,” said political
scientist Michael Nelson from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

The police have yet to arrest any suspects in connection with the New
Year’s Eve bomb blasts in central Bangkok, which killed three people
and injured dozens, including foreign tourists. The government said the
attacks were the work of factions in the military or police linked to
Thaksin, in a snap reaction after the bombings.

Bob Broadfoot,
the managing director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in
Hong Kong, said that response exposed just how much the junta’s leaders
were obsessed with the deposed leader.

“They are so focused on
the narrow political agenda, which is to keep Thaksin out of the
political equation and get rid of his political and economic legacies,”
Broadfoot said. Junta leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin has voiced confidence
that public support will return, saying that the junta cannot work at
the same pace as the “dictatorial” Thaksin.

But foreign
investors have grown jittery since the fall of Thaksin, a self-made
billionaire under whose rule Thailand’s economy grew 45 percent from
2001 to 2005, led by exports.

Foreign traders panicked when the
Bank of Thailand in December introduced stringent currency controls in
a bid to curb the Thai baht’s rise against the dollar.

The Thai
stock market nosedived a record 15 percent when the capital controls
took effect. The collapse forced the government to revoke some of the
measures in an embarrassing and quickfire policy turnaround.

“Foreign investors cannot figure out the direction of this government
because of occasional policy changes,” said Song Seng Wun, a regional
economist at investment bank CIMB-GK in Singapore.

The junta
also proposed limiting foreigners to a 49 percent stake in the shares
and voting rights of Thai companies, by closing a widely exploited
legal loophole. The move was another shock for foreign businesses.

“The sentiment among foreign investors is a mixture of staying on the
sidelines and giving up on Thailand and looking somewhere else, like
Malaysia or Vietnam, to invest,” Song Seng Wun said.

Observers
also feared that the New Year’s Eve bombings, and the junta’s sudden
announcement this month that it would re-open Bangkok’s old Don Muang
airport as the country’s second international hub, could hurt tourism.

Holidaymakers are a key money spinner for Thailand, generating six percent of the kingdom’s economy.

The junta said the re-opening of Don Muang was necessary to fix a host
of problems at the sparkling new Suvarnabhumi Airport, which opened in
late September.

But Broadfoot said he suspected the junta was
using the airport’s problems to try and heap political discredit on
Thaksin’s regime, since Suvarnabhumi was one of his pet projects.

“They are so focused on discrediting Thaksin that they forgot about their own image,” he said.

“The government does not seem to have an agenda on how to govern,” he
added. “People are asking, ‘What are they doing? And what’s next?'”

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