Out with the old, in with the old

December 22, 2007

 

The Thai election tomorrow makes one thing certain: nothing can be taken for granted, writes Connie Levett.

Samak Sundaravej makes his way through the crowded street market in Ayutthaya, the ancient Thai capital, stopping to try the spicy tom yum gung soup – “a little light on the sweetness” – and the sticky rice and red bean wrapped in banana leaf.

“Uncle Samak, you can taste it but you cannot complain,” yells an old woman as the big man eases past.

The stallholders listen closely as he sips and frowns, and do not seem to mind when he tells them bluntly where they went wrong and how he could do it better.

The 72-year-old’s brusque style is familiar: he is a former minister of the interior with a disputed history in the bloody suppression of the 1976 student uprising; he has strong royal connections; he is a former governor of Bangkok; and he is the host of two cooking programs on television.

No one asks about his policies and, at a rally later he pays them little attention. “They are in the pamphlet; you can read them yourselves,” he tells a crowd of 500 People Power Party supporters.

Anyone who knows his story knows his policies are a virtual carbon copy of the populist agenda of the exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the dissolved Thai Rak Thai party. He formed the new party at Thaksin’s request and advocates his return from exile. By Monday this TV chef could head the next government of Thailand.

A big slab of a man, with a flat face and forceful demeanour, Samak is nicknamed Dog Mouth by some for his barking style – he speaks loudly, often and cannot be easily silenced. What he wants to talk about this day is Thaksin, the divisive, charismatic leader deposed in a coup d’etat in September last year by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin.

For Samak, Thaksin is one of the great men of Thailand. “People turned against Thaksin because they didn’t get what they wanted from him,” he says. “They say Thaksin was corrupt, that he was disrespectful to the monarchy, that he wanted to create his own dynasty. General Sonthi wanted the old party [the Democrats] to run the country.”

Since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was abolished and democracy instituted in a bloodless coup, Thai politics has limped along, with short bursts of democratic rule under unstable coalition governments, punctuated by 18 coups. Politics was a club whose members were a rich entitled few; they paid little attention paid to the rural poor.

Thaksin changed that by waking up the rural masses to their rights and their power – catering to them through a populist agenda of infrastructure spending, affordable health care and access to capital through designated village funds. In return, the poor north-east of the country, where a third of Thai voters live, became his powerbase.

 

Already one of Thailand’s richest men, he did handsomely from the arrangement, with the value of his family business interests skyrocketing during his five-year tenure. After he was ousted, the army claimed his ballooning wealth was the ill-gotten gains of office.

But last year’s coup was about much more than deposing an allegedly corrupt politician; Thailand has known many of them. Even the seemingly squeaky clean leader of the Democrats, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, has said “no politician is 100 per cent clean”.

This coup was about taking back control of the country for the establishment, particularly the military and bureaucracy. The Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party has been dissolved, 111 members of the party executive, including Thaksin, were banned from politics for five years, and the exiled Thaksin and his family have been aggressively pursued on corruption charges, with several cases pending in the courts.

“They got rid of Thaksin … but they have failed in reconstituting the former pre-Thaksin Thailand,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The evidence is unmistakable: the populist genie is out of the bottle.

“All the bad press and criticism levelled at Thai Rak Thai and Thaksin’s populism is undermined by the universal adoption of populist policies by all the parties.”

The Democrat Party strategist Kasit Piromya, a former ally of Thaksin, says the former prime minister did not so much run the government as control the masses.

“When I was with him at Government House it was about mass control, populism with control. Everything was directed at controlling the masses. His whole political machine was geared to control.”

When the military forced Thaksin from power it tried to erase him from the public’s memory. It abolished his well known assistance programs, and where it was forced to maintain initiatives, such as the 30 baht ($1.15) health care scheme, it changed their names. The popular three-digit lottery was banned because it was a Thaksin initiative. Samak’s People Power Party has promised to reinstitute it.

The plan to wipe out every trace of Thaksin might have succeeded had the military-appointed interim Government governed well. But in the past 15 months the economy has struggled and the credibility of the coup leaders has suffered with it.

“The interim Government are inept. Thaksin’s government was corrupt but decisive; it knew how to get things done,” Thitinan says. “It abused power, killed some people [2000 died in extrajudicial killings after Thaksin began his war on drugs in 2003] but they met expectations and delivered on pledges.

 

“These guys are not meeting expectations. With a coup the expectations are extraordinary. With an election you can blame yourself, but with a coup people have the right to be angry because it was forced on them.”

The make-up of the 480-member parliament is likely to be decided in two key areas: Bangkok, and the central plains north of the capital. The Democrats are expected to sweep the south, the PPP will control the north and north-east and the west is the stronghold of a third, mid-sized party, Chart Thai, led by the wily septuagenarian Banharn Silpa-archa. Banharn is known as The Eel for his slippery dealings, and while he supposedly has a coalition deal with the Democrats, he is also reported to be negotiating with the PPP.

The latest polls suggest the people will punish the military, with the PPP winning the greatest number of seats, if not an outright majority, making Samak a frontrunner for prime minister. “I am not a fortune teller,” he says, refusing to predict a result.

A Bangkok-based Western diplomat says the Democrats thought the election would be handed to them on a plate but are now deeply worried they will not do well in Bangkok. The strategist Kasit says: “If we lose badly in Bangkok we will have no moral authority to rule.”

If the PPP wins an absolute majority or has the largest number of seats by a significant margin, say 50 seats, it will be difficult for the military to prevent it taking power without reducing the poll to a farce.

One way to prevent a victory is to dissolve the party for misconduct during the election campaign. The election commission has signalled there have been breaches and the coup leaders have other mechanisms in place.

General Sonthi stepped down as head of army in September and is now Deputy Prime Minister responsible for national security in the interim Government. He has established a vote-buying investigative committee and put himself at its head. Its work has focused on the misdeeds of the PPP.

One Thai analyst says: “The PPP will win a majority and are justified to set up a coalition. Sonthi will try hard to stop that … if he demolishes the party it will bring about an uprising … there will be a very violent reaction in Thailand. If Sonthi can’t stop that [victory] happening, he may have to stage another coup.”

Samak refuses to contemplate another military intervention. “We pay no attention to the [coup leaders]. By now we have confidence that no one will do such a thing again.”

 

Abhisit also questions the likelihood. “Coups tend to be addictive, but the world changes, and coups become more far and few between. I hope it’s the last one, and I am sure the military will have learned the lesson that the easiest part of a coup is seizing power. It’s also the responsibility of politicians to make sure it’s a democratic process, to make sure things don’t break down.”

In his closely watched birthday speech on December 5, King Bhumibol Adulyadej told Thais that “soldier and civilians must work in harmony just like our legs, which have to walk harmoniously. If there is no harmony the country will face disaster, the country will fall. And when it falls where are we going to live?”

Thailand has historically been dominated by a trinity of military, bureaucracy and monarchy. The relationship between the military and monarchy is symbiotic. When the army seized power last year the military spokesman promised: “We have no intention to rule but to return the power to the people as soon as possible, to preserve peace and honour the king, who is the most revered to all Thais.”

The king was seen to tacitly endorse the coup when he gave an audience to the coup leaders late on the evening of the putsch. It is impossible to talk about the military in isolation, yet it is forbidden to talk at all about King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-serving monarch and the most influential figure in the country, in relation to the political environment.

The King Never Smiles, an analysis of the relationship between military and monarchy by Paul Handley, is banned in Thailand. Criticism of the monarch is forbidden, and legal action can be instigated by anyone against any offender, resulting in tough penalties. This means there is never an honest public discussion of the king’s crucial role as the one true constant whose very existence holds everything else in its place. With its monarch now 80 and in fragile health, Thailand is in the twilight of his reign.

His older sister, Galyani, the only surviving member of his immediate generation, is now dying of cancer in a Bangkok hospital. When she dies the country is expected to go into 100 days of mourning.

As Thailand sits on the cusp of new and uncertain times, the coup leaders have tried and failed to drag the country back to more familiar ground, by eradicating Thaksin and re-establishing the status quo. “Thailand has changed; it’s not the same Thailand they want to bring back,” Thitinan says.

How the army, and the hundreds of thousands of urban civilians who marched to oust Thaksin, deal with a PPP-led government, should it win, will depend on how it conducts itself. “Thaksin must return, whether we are in government or opposition, to fight the charges: it is his duty to come back,” Samak says.

Kasit, who lead street protests against Thaksin before joining the Democrats, says: “I don’t think there will be trouble. It’s not winning, it’s what they do with the victory.

“If they bring Thaksin back and do away with the laws, if they do an amnesty as a priority for the 111, there will be half a million people on the streets.”

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