An angry exit

Economist.com

Thailand

Mar 1st 2007 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition

A top minister quits, widening cracks in the military government

SINCE December’s bungled currency controls and January’s
muddle-headed changes to the law on foreign business ownership, it has
seemed only a matter of time before Pridiyathorn Devakula, Thailand’s
irascible finance minister and deputy prime minister, either resigned
or was sacked. On February 28th he quit, with guns blazing—attacking
cabinet colleagues and opening further cracks in the military
government that has run the country since a coup last September.

Mr Pridiyathorn, a minor member of Thailand’s royal family, won a
reputation for competence and independence as central bank chief under
Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister. So, for the generals
behind the coup, he was an obvious choice to steer the economy. But his
reputation, like that of the junta, was left tattered by the fiascos
over currency controls and foreign business-ownership. These
ill-thought-out measures were rushed in without consultation and then,
just as hastily, partly reversed as investors took fright.

Two final reverses seem to have made Mr Pridiyathorn quit. One was a
current-affairs programme on state television featuring Sondhi
Limthongkul
, a media magnate who led big protests against Mr Thaksin
last year and who had recently turned his fire on Mr Pridiyathorn. The
other was an attempt by General Surayud Chulanont, the prime minister,
to co-opt Somkid Jatusripitak, one of the main architects of populist,
free-market “Thaksinomics”, into the military government.

Mr Somkid was an odd choice for the job to which he was appointed on
February 15th, ostensibly to explain the generals’ decision to ditch
Thaksinomics in favour of the rather vague “sufficiency economy”
philosophy of King Bhumibol. Suspicions that Mr Somkid was being lined
up as Mr Pridiyathorn’s replacement were strengthened when it turned
out that the finance minister was unaware of his appointment until
reporters gleefully informed him.

A furious reaction from anti-Thaksin groups and the Thai press led
Mr Somkid to quit after only six days. Mr Pridiyathorn‘s less graceful
departure follows splits between General Surayud and the army chief and
junta leader, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, over the handling of the
insurgency in the Muslim-majority south. General Surayud has also
distanced himself from General Sonthi‘s comments that Thailand should
take back the satellite business that Mr Thaksin‘s family sold to
Singapore last year, which the army chief claims is being used for
spying.

Investigations by the military government into Mr Thaksin‘s alleged
corruption and abuse of power are, finally, yielding charges. His Thai
Rak Thai (
TRT) party faces possible dissolution in a trial over electoral shenanigans. Several big factions, including Mr Somkid’s, have broken away. But TRT is not giving up yet. Its acting leader, Chaturon Chaisang, has been
touring its strongholds in north-eastern Thailand. A new satellite-television channel, run by former Thaksin aides, was due to open on March 1st, but was blocked by the government.

This puts the junta in a quandary. If Mr Thaksin’s friends are
allowed to conduct a propaganda campaign against the increasingly
unpopular military government, they could do well in the elections due
later this year. But a crackdown might make them even more popular.

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