Thailand Goes Back to the Future

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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007 By ANDREW MARSHALL/KUT CHUM

Back in the early cretaceous period, some 120 million years ago, a ferocious, flesh-eating creature roamed Thailand. It had four-inch teeth, measured 21 feet from snout to tail and ate other dinosaurs. When they discovered its bones in 1996 in a jungle riverbed, scientists called it Siamotyrannus isanensis, after the country’s old name, Siam, and the impoverished northeastern Thai region where the bones lay, Isaan.

 

With campaigning underway for a Dec. 23 general election, and Isaan a key battleground, dinosaurs again roam the region — political ones this time. Lumbering onto a campaign stage in this sleepy town is veteran politician Samak Sundaravej, 72, the right-wing firebrand who leads the People Power Party (PPP). The PPP is an ill-disguised facsimile of Thai Rak Thai (TRT), the party outlawed after the Thai military overthrew its leader, the multi-billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, in September 2006. The TRT’s Bangkok headquarters is now occupied by the PPP, and the two parties’ logos are almost identical. So are their policies, such as cheap health care and easy loans, and for this, PPP leader Samak makes no apology. “This party has inherited the policies Thaksin created,” he tells his audience at Kut Chum. “Give us a chance to continue them.”

Here’s another thing: the PPP’s policies are strikingly similar to those of its archrival, the Democrat Party. “You’ll notice that all the parties are populist these days,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. Those populist TRT policies won Thaksin two terms in office and raised the expectations of an entire electorate. “Thai Rak Thai has profoundly changed Thailand,” says Thitinan. “People have discovered that they’ve been neglected. They want better lives. They have hopes and dreams.” What he calls “the ghost of TRT” hovers over the polling booths.

So does the specter of a resurgent Thai military. Thailand’s generals seized power 15 months ago after long-running street protests in Bangkok calling for Thaksin’s resignation for alleged corruption and abuse of power. Junta-appointed investigators then froze his assets and filed a raft of corruption charges against him and his family — charges that he denies. But Thaksin’s popularity in rural areas such as Isaan remains undented, and with his loyalists in the PPP tipped to win more seats than any other party, his political clout is still a force to be reckoned with, even from self-imposed exile in England. “This election is a proxy war between Thaksin and the coupmakers,” says Chris Baker, co-author of Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand.

So what will the military do if the PPP wins big and — as Samak has vowed — brings Thaksin home? Army chief General Anupong Paochinda has dismissed the idea of a postelection coup as “stupid.” Not just stupid, but perhaps unnecessary. A new security bill has been tabled before the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly, which replaced the suspended parliament. If passed in its current form, the bill could grant the generals powers to deny basic civil rights. “The military see themselves as custodians of Thailand’s political future,” says Thitinan. “The security act is evidence of their intention to stay in politics for the long haul.” This and other junta-proposed laws would “violate the people’s rights,” declared former senator Jon Ungphakorn, who led a hundreds-strong storming of the Assembly on Dec. 12 to demand its closure (proceedings were temporarily halted). With no single party likely to secure a majority (about 4,000 candidates from dozens of parties are vying for the 480 parliamentary places), Thailand’s first postcoup government might look much like those of the pre-Thaksin past: a shaky coalition with another sharp-toothed monster, the Thai military, breathing down its neck.

Crying for the Past
Yet much is riding on this election. Not only must it reintroduce a semblance of democracy after 15 months of flat-footed military rule, it must also restore the Thai people’s faith in a political system that generated so much division and bitterness that the military was emboldened to send in its tanks. Sadly, restoring that faith is looking like a dim prospect. “This election is already well known for having almost every questionable, old politician from the bad old days of corrupt governments,” commented the Bangkok Post in an editorial. Corruption appears rife. “We’ve had a lot of reports of vote-buying,” says Montri Kiatkhamjorn, a senior officer for the Election Commission, the poll watchdog, in Isaan. “It seems like it’s become the culture of this election already.” Montri reckons “maybe 50%” of candidates are buying votes in the region, often using hard-to-track methods. A candidate might pay for a funeral or another important local ceremony, clear a gambler’s debt to an underground bookie, or buy credit for a teenager’s cell phone. One PPP canvasser claimed his rivals were handing out Viagra to elderly voters.

The PPP’s best weapon is evidently Thaksin’s name. Anyone attending the party’s rallies could be forgiven for thinking that the deposed PM is running for office. A recent Samak rally in Yasothon province in Isaan attracts thousands of people, many of them trucked in from surrounding villages. A stall sells books and pamphlets attacking the former PM’s political and military foes, plus a VCD featuring an emotional Thaksin called One Year Missing. “I cried when I watched it,” says the old woman selling them. The two candidates whom Samak has come to support are all but forgotten. Instead, his speech is all about “Prime Minister Thaksin,” as Samak still calls him. He suggests that if Thaksin returns to a military-ruled Thailand, he faces the same fate as Pakistan’s ex-PM Benazir Bhutto, whose October homecoming was met by a suicide bombing that killed more than 140 people. Samak hails Thaksin’s dynamism and business savvy, and accuses rivals of “exploiting the bond Isaan people have with him.”

Yet his speech gets only polite applause. “Yasothon people are very hard to please,” explains Sombat Phaopaeng, 31, an ice cream vendor doing a brisk trade at the rally on this sweltering morning. “They like Thai Rak Thai, they like Thaksin. But they don’t like these particular candidates.”

While the PPP plays the Thaksin card, the rival Democrats point to their record in ruling Thailand after two previous crises: the bloody military crackdown on democracy protesters in 1992, and the regionwide economic crash five years later. “We restored political calm and laid the ground for economic recovery,” says Korn Chatikavanij, the party’s deputy secretary general. “Our record in government is solid.” Democrats are also banking on Abhisit Vejjajiva, 43, their fresh-faced, Oxford-educated leader. Abhisit is clearly Prime Ministerial material, but remains untested in high public office and is said to lack the common touch. Samak dismisses Abhisit as an “unripe mango,” but comparative youth could be an advantage in a Cretaceous age.

Southern Thailand is a stronghold for the Democrats, but the northeast region of Isaan is a graveyard. There, Thaksin is a tough act to follow. In None Somboon village, his face still beams from sun-bleached posters left over from a previous election. “Most Prime Ministers never leave their air-conditioned offices,” says rice farmer Boon Mithaowan, 49. “Thaksin promised to do things, then he did them.” Thanks to him, says Boon, the local irrigation canal was dredged and a new road built through the village.

 

A Battle of Wits
Thaksin loyalists see the corruption charges against him as either baseless or simply an inescapable part of doing business in Thailand. They also associate Thaksin with more prosperous times; the junta’s shaky grasp of economics — growth has slowed and an ill-conceived currency-control measure in December 2006 led to the biggest one-day loss in the stock market’s history — makes it easy to get nostalgic. “The economy was good then,” insists taxi driver Narongsak Iamsamorn, 39, who hasn’t decided who to vote for this time round. “But now Vietnam is laughing at us. Even a schoolchild can tell you how bad our economy is.” His fares have dropped by two-thirds since the coup. “I want Thaksin to come back and make Thailand better again,” he says.

If the PPP leads the next government, that homecoming is assured — Samak has promised to pardon Thaksin and his ex-TRT colleagues. How the military will react is unclear. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who led the 2006 coup and has since appointed himself a Deputy Prime Minister, has promised to “accept the people’s judgment.” After campaigning began, the military announced that it needed nearly $9 billion over 10 years to modernize and buy new weapons, which reads very much like the price of its loyalty to the next government.

Keeping the military in its barracks and out of politics will be one challenge for Thailand’s next PM. So will healing the country. Suriyasai Katasila, secretary general of the Campaign for Popular Democracy, has accused the PPP of drawing up an “enemies list,” something that the party’s deputy secretary general Noppadon Pattama denies. “Let bygones be bygones,” he says. “We should not fail the Thai people by arguing and quarreling.” Noppadon says his party has adopted “a less confrontational style.” If so, nobody has told PPP pit bull Chalerm Yubamrung, who has publicly vowed to “execute” Thaksin’s foes. Chalerm, who is campaigning alongside Samak, covets the post of interior minister and, if elected, promises to revive Thaksin’s notorious “war on drugs,” in which more than 2,600 people were killed.

An election that propels Chalerm into high office looks unlikely to create the conciliatory and competent government that this nation craves. But Thais are nothing if not pragmatic: any elected government is better than the junta, they reason. While it answers one question — Who will be Thailand’s 25th Prime Minister? — the election will raise another: When will its 23rd return from self-imposed exile in England? Thaksin’s high-profile ownership of Manchester City Football Club, an English Premiership team he bought for $164 million, has helped keep him in the headlines back in soccer-crazy Thailand. While it is illegal for Thaksin to use his wealth to finance PPP activities, his own future is intertwined with the party: he will need its political clout to fight the corruption charges against him and his family. Samak has promised to lift the five-year ban imposed on Thaksin and 110 other former TRT members.

“I don’t want to go back as Prime Minister. It’s too much already,” Thaksin told Reuters on Dec. 7. “My wife will divorce me if I go back to politics.” So Thaksin will never be PM again? “Nothing can be ruled out,” smiles PPP executive Noppadon, who doubles as Thaksin’s spokesman and legal adviser. “He is still young and very energetic.” Back on the campaign trail in northeast Thailand, a PPP candidate is urging his audience to send a message to Thaksin. “Please clap loudly so that England can hear you,” he says. It’s a safe bet that England is already listening.

With reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok

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Thailand Goes Back to the Future – TIME

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