Saturday, March 25, 2006

What happens to Thaksin will resonate around the region

Today's SMH has a good piece about the current political crisis that swirls around PM Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand.

What happens to Thaksin will resonate around the region
BUSINESS tycoons occasionally fantasise they could do a better job running the country than the elected politicians - witness the late Kerry Packer's remarks at a Senate inquiry and the promotion of the former Elders-IXL chief John Elliott as a possible Liberal Party saviour back in the 1980s.

Two important countries have recently tried the experiment, and the results are not too edifying for many of the voters shortly to go to the polls.

One is Italy, where the Prime Minister and owner of just about everything, Silvio Berlusconi, is making the remarkable claim that the country is more prosperous than it looks, because of the strength of the black economy.

The other is in our region, Thailand, where the telecoms tycoon-turned-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has provoked a political crisis that seems likely to be dumped into the lap of a reluctant King Bhumibol Adulyadej.


Good business men do not necessarily make good politicians or leaders of countries. A country is not a business no matter how much some rich mogul may fantasise it. The slackers, the disatisified, the disgruntled and other malcontents cannot just be fired like they can in a business. Nor can the rich in competition be walked over like the poor can... though they might be able to be bought off. A country is far more complex than a business, even a business empire as vast as the Shinawatra family's.

Thailand has done very well with these protests. In the past they would have turned bloody long before this. The country has come a long way since the fiasco with General Suchinda and his attempts to keep control. There are still all the mysterious deaths/diappearances from that early 90's crushing of protest that have never been fully brought to light.

I am glad the king has not intervened. He seems to be allowing the political process to run its course.

Somewhere along the way a compromise needs to be reached. Compromise is the Thai way to restore harmony. This is why so many have been trying to bring the relevant people to the bargaining table. From the news reports it does appear that Mr Thaksin is not playing the compromise game as he should. Why not?

Mr Thaksin is hugely popular with the rural people because he has tried to address the problems they have faced through the years.

In the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which spread from Thailand, Thaksin founded his Thai Rak Thai (Thai loves Thai) party, and won the 2001 election on a populist program that included debt relief for farmers, rises in the minimum wage and fiscal reflation.

Thailand boomed and Thaksin won plaudits for his handling of the tsunami. In February last year he became the country's first prime minister to serve out a full elected term, and won a sweeping majority in new elections.

Maybe he became overconfident and has taken advantage of his position for his own ends. I don't know, but the tax free sale of his Shin Corp telecommunications company tipped a lot of critics over the edge.

Thaksin's critics have a long list of charges. To name some: dodgy transfer of financial assets to family members and household servants; the harshness of military and police action against Muslim unrest in the south; promotion of his cousin to army chief and later supreme armed forces commander, his brother-in-law to deputy police chief; extrajudicial execution of 2700 suspects in a crackdown on the methamphetamine trade; defamation lawsuits against press critics.

Crowning the list was the sale of the Shin Corporation, owned by Thaksin's family and in-laws, to the Singaporean Government's Temasek Holdings for 73.3 billion baht ($2.6 billion) using a loophole created by Thaksin that excludes capital gains tax.

Whatever comes of the current protests and the elections next weekend, it's my hope and prayer that Bangkok does not descend into a bloody confrontation.

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