Thailand: The Government’s Consolidation of Power

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February 16, 2007 23 00  GMT

Summary

A flurry of actions and announcements
coming from Thailand this week shows the Thai military government is
finally getting serious about consolidating its rule. Its long-overdue
move will involve first fracturing the opposition’s support base for
easier absorption into its own coalition, and then shoring up domestic
support. Cracking down on dissent in the coming weeks will be central
to the government’s strategy for survival.

Analysis

Thailand
was busy the week of Feb. 11 with a flurry of official activity,
including a visit by Malaysia’s prime minister and the appointment of
an official affiliated with the former regime to lead a government
economic team handling foreign investor relations.

These
actions are aimed at laying the groundwork for an imminent crackdown on
the opposition. They are also intended to show the public that the
military government is capable of effective leadership and governance.

Thailand’s
government has felt increasingly insecure in recent weeks as signs have
emerged of internal divisions and rumors have circulated of a
countercoup. The government feels it needs to move big, and move fast,
to stay in power.

While foreigners might fret over the
investment climate in Thailand, the regime has one overriding concern:
dissolving any opposition bloc capable of ousting it. Foreign investor
confidence lost in the short term always can be rebuilt in the long
term. By contrast, if the government’s legitimacy with the people is
lost, it loses everything, including the economy.

Government
inaction and stop-start policy initiatives have lost the Thai
government much public respect, while ousted Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra’s network of allies remains largely intact. To date, the
regime has been unable to consolidate domestic support, failing to
demonstrate clear leadership and proactive governance. Violence in
southern Thailand has continued, accusations of corruption against
Thaksin’s government — the original justification for the coup — have
not been pursued, and those responsible for Thailand’s New Year’s Eve
bombings remain at large. These failings have led to increased
criticism of the government, weakening its ability to whip up support
for its economic and social priorities.

The government knows
that it must take more coordinated action in order to stem public
dissatisfaction. Having the Malaysian prime minister over for a visit
Feb. 11 to discuss ways to mediate with the Muslim insurgents in
southern Thailand, starting a crackdown on dual Thai-Malaysian citizens
(many militants hiding in Malaysia are believed to have such
immigration status), and publicly shifting the blame to the military
for violence in the south and the police for the New Year’s bombing are
indications of things to come. These measures show the public that
something is being done, in theory buying the government more time to
consolidate. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen.

As
long as Thaksin’s support base survives in Bangkok, however, the
government cannot consolidate power. Failing to take over Thaksin’s
political capital right after the coup has proven costly for the
government, which is only now intensifying its attacks on opposition
assets and reputations. Reports of cracked airport runways leading to
discussions of shutting down the Thaksin-sponsored Suvarnabhumi Airport
are part of this assault, as is fracturing Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai
(TRT) party into its original smaller, more manageable, factions.

Meanwhile,
the number of political deals struck to draw former Thaksin allies into
government has risen. Soon after former Prime Minister Chavalit
Yongchaiyudh dropped his criticism of the coup, some of Thaksin’s
political alliances started to crumble.
Getting Somkid Jatusripitak, Thaksin’s former heir-apparent in the TRT,
to become chairman of the government’s new economic team effectively
stunts the TRT’s future. Somkid is under investigation for various
corruption charges; these probably will ease now. Thaksin arch-rival
Sondhi Limthongkul has also been brought on board with the government,
and has received an hour-long anti-Thaksin show every weeknight at 8:30
p.m. on state television. Sondhi was a former ally of Thaksin who
turned on the ousted prime minister, triggering the latter’s downfall.
That such a figure is being allowed a public platform underscores the
priority attached to the anti-Thaksin campaign.

These
developments send the important message to the remaining TRT holdouts
that if they buy into the regime, they will enjoy an amnesty and a
position in the existing political structure. If they do not, they
probably will lose their assets.

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