Sunday, August 06, 2006

Speculations on Thaksin's Burma trip

Sopon Onkgara has written a wonderfully speculative article on Thaksin's recent secret 1-day trip to meet with Burma's leaders. It does make one wonder what Thaksin is up to... I've become rather cynical of Thai politicians over the years. It seems that so very few have the nation's welfare at heart, and most seem to be more interested in preserving (and increasing) their own wealth and the wealth of their families.

I suspect that there's a value system in place that has its roots back in the old days in China... This value system had the family interests in mind where an individual member of a family was groomed for positions of power and influence and then was expected to bring great benefit to those above them (the emporer, etc), to cronies, and to their own families. What was good for the country as a whole does not seem to have been part of the paradigm... maybe I'm all wrong but I do wonder...

It would make an interesting topic for research for someone in the social sciences.

Secret of Thaksin's Burma trip might be in the skies (The Nation)
Even critics of Thaksin Shinawatra have to grudgingly admire his audacity and public-relations stunts. Still, as caretaker prime minister, his stealth diplomacy - with an abrupt half-day visit to Burma on Wednesday - surely more than raised eyebrows.

Controversy followed, with persistent doubts, but he got away with evasive responses and lame explanations.

People have to bear or live with his style of working, never mind tradition or protocol. Thaksin described his visit to the cut-throat rulers of Burma as modern diplomacy, bypassing cumbersome rituals and saving a lot of time to actually get results.

What results? Thaksin claimed that the trip was all for national interests, nothing else, and that the 35-minute meeting covered a lot of ground and wide-ranging issues. Indeed, our energy minister said the talk focused for a while on investment in oil and gas; the agriculture minister said there was discussion on bird flu; the Army chief said there was nothing much of interest.

If there was any achievement at all, Thaksin must have been the sole beneficiary, but he kept most of it to himself following the one-on-one huddle with the Burmese junta's overlords.

Let's look at this way: if the talks were all in the national interest and achieved much success, a shrewd politician like Thaksin would have optimised the useful outcomes to chalk up political points as the country heads towards a general election, if not put another halo around himself.

As far as we know, Thaksin is still trapped in bad times. He is very desperate to restore his sinking popularity following five years of numerous misdeeds, massive corruption and abuse of power, among other scandals in government. If the visit was urgent, necessary and genuinely beneficial to the country, he would have rambled on and on about the results non-stop.

Surely, the true achievements of the Burma trip, or even failures if there were any, must be something he is not prepared to reveal to the people, who footed the bill for the trip. When he did not come up with tangible results, it was inevitable that he would fall prey to all sorts of speculation.

It might sound funny or ridiculous to those who are not familiar with his odd behaviour, but it was just another sad episode for the country, whose future and destiny remain murky under Thaksin's power.

This was not the first time Thaksin's foreign trips have raised suspicions about his family's business and vested interests, particularly concerning the Ipstar satellite. Speculation and hearsay were confirmed by either credible evidence or business agreements.

There was talk about some hitches in the Shin Corp deal with Temasek Holdings of Singapore. One version was that it was not yet a done deal regarding ground stations on high mountains in Burma for the Ipstar satellite to have a direct link with Australia. Singapore has become the proprietor of the facilities through the sale of Shin Corp stocks and Burma feels uneasy about such an arrangement.

There was speculation about Thaksin's desire to invest his cash holdings in energy ventures, rare earth and other natural resources. "Why should I pursue business deals after I have sold all," he asserted. His argument was not taken seriously by those familiar with his style of doing business through nominees and funds.

There was talk on the grapevine about Thaksin's desire to drive away misfortune and whatever jinx now menaces his star by paying homage at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. The embattled billionaire is said to be fascinated by superstition and fortune-telling. His visits to various places led to wild talk about such practices.

If people are inclined to believe what Thaksin has to say, they should be prepared for disappointment later on. Somehow, what he has denied has tended to turn out to be true. As a politician who never admits any mistake, Thaksin did not care when his claims were found to be false.

If there were some truth in all the wild talk, it would be about his family's unfinished deal with Temasek Holdings. Half of the Bt73 billion has been paid over so far, but it remains untouched and Thaksin cannot remit it abroad, as there exist doubts about the legality of the entire transaction. What's more, parts of the deal encountered legal problems that led to sharp falls in the shares of Shin Corp companies, resulting in massive paper losses and a red face for Temasek Holdings. With Thaksin's political future in the doldrums, the likelihood of a strong rebound looks pretty remote, if not impossible.

More similarly unplanned foreign trips will be heard of soon enough. Thaksin's next one is expected to be to Cambodia, where there are still rich natural resources for joint investment. Don't be surprised if he shows up at Angkor Wat or other sacred sites as well.

Despite his mighty political power and supreme self-confidence, Thaksin still believes and has faith in the supernatural or paranormal - if it can yield some benefit to him.

Sopon Onkgara

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