‘I truly believe that real economic prosperity cannot be sustained over the long term without democracy,’
said Thaksin Shinawatra, former Prime Minister in his address to the International Institute for Strategic Studies last Friday (2007-03-02). And Thaksin had just defined ‘democracy’ to be a full liberal democracy with effective and broad-based participation, free and fair elections, freedom of information with many alternative and independent sources of news, freedom of association, speech and so on. Another choice quote:
‘Free speech and expression is the economic engine of the information economy.’
When illiberal democrats become converted to liberal democracy, after they’ve been deposed, it is hard to see this newfound enthusiasm for freedom as anything but pure Machiavellian instrumentality. And yet that is precisely what Westerners seem to like to hear. The IISS audience just lapped it all up and I overheard many praising his performance afterwards.
And what a performance it was.
Thaksin had begun by praising the achievements of Western democracy, setting out how the Third Wave of democratisation had proven a universal human desire for democracy and the good governance and economic prosperity that came with it (rather than the other way around), sketched how the EU could help democratisation in Asia with sensitivity, respect and vision, and expressed his optimism about Thailand’s future and looked forward to national reconciliation that would undoubtedly come due to ‘the good heartedness of the Thai people and the benevolent wisdom of our most beloved King.’ Wow. I almost believed that he really really believed in what he said even though I was already inclined to be sceptical, having witnessed the vitriol of two of his opponents first hand. Which also influenced me to see the whole situation as a power struggle between various factions of the old and new elites. Even though his English pronunciation was far from perfect, he spoke with such apparent sincerity and depth of feeling. No wonder the coup leaders were so flustered by his visit to Singapore and had ordered a blackout of news about him on Thai television. Some Thais seem to adore him: A Royal Thai scholar studying law at UCL, whose adulation of Thaksin overcame his fear of the military junta cutting his scholarship, asked him why oh why he had committed ‘political suicide’ by selling ShinCorp to Temasek. And then asked for a donation to the Thai society he was helping to set up.
‘I give him my moral support; I want him to be successful because it is my country too,’ said Thaksin magnanimously in response to a question from a Japanese journalist from Kyodo about his views on the performance of the current Thai Prime Minister. Hmmm, I thought certain opposition politicians in Singapore could certainly take a leaf out of Thaksin’s book. And in response to the Telegraph journalist’s question about his plans to make a comeback: ‘I have no intention to return to politics. I have remained overseas because I want to give the junta time for national reconciliation.’ Somehow I don’t think he would turn down a chance at returning to power if there was a counter coup or rural-based people power movement. And ‘national reconcilation‘ was mentioned again and again. But apparently he seemed to imply that national reconciliation was predicated on the current government not prosecuting/persecuting him as a pre-condition.
‘I did NOT do *anything* wrong.’ The smooth charm became a tad frayed with a touch of indignation when a French and a Thai journalist asked, respectively, if he felt responsible for breaking Thai democracy and what his biggest mistake as Prime Minister was (after implying that his overthrow was due to bad karma). He proceeded to chide them and recount his numerous achievements in poverty reduction, economic growth, repayment of IMF debt two years ahead of schedule.’If you had been aware of these facts and figures, you would be ashamed to ask me such questions.’ Ah yes, the “lim peh kah li kong” response. Where have I heard this before? Anyway this was certainly a more familiar Thaksin, the man that King Bhumibol had criticised for being unable to handle criticism, who showed through the cracks, albeit minute cracks that were quickly papered over with numerous witticisms and jokes that came quick and fast from this great communicator, causing the audience to roar with laughter more than once.
‘A person of his position should be more familiar with the facts before making such remarks.’ An IISS member had asked for Thaksin’s comments about General Sondhi’s speculation that Thai military communications could be spied on as a result of Temasek’s ownership of ShinSat. If I understood Thaksin correctly, the ground station is in Indonesia, manned and maintained by Thai engineers, the satellites themselves remain in Thai government ownership while the company is only a sort of management agent for the concession of the orbital slot on behalf of the Thai government to recoup the investment in the infrastructure. That elliptically biting concluding line, quoted at the beginning of this paragraph, was delivered with such crisp dryness and impeccable timing that I couldn’t help but laugh too.
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