Non-resident power

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

Deposed Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, found guilty in an abuse-of-power case, continues to dominate Thai politics.

in Singapore

THE reputation of Thailand, which is the current Chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as an efficient subregional power has taken a beating once again in over two years. Thaksin Shinawatra, a globalisation-savvy Prime Minister when he was deposed in absentia in a bloodless military coup in September 2006, is still at the centre of all political storms, real and imaginary, in the country. Thaksin, who is living in self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom, continues to be the polarising figure in Thai politics.

In a narrow majority decision on October 21, the Supreme Court ruled that Thaksin had, as Prime Minister, helped his wife secure from a state agency some prime property at a highly discounted price. Thaksin, it was ruled, had ignored the doctrine of conflict of interest while seeking to feather his familys nest. He was sentenced to a prison term of two years. The judgment did not automatically result in his arrest as Thaksin, who returned home after the democracy-restoring elections to get his name cleared through judicial means, jumped bail in the case of alleged corruption when he was permitted by the court to leave the country to attend the Beijing Olympics in August. From Beijing, he and his wife, who was by then convicted in a case of alleged tax evasion, went to Britain. An official move is under way to seek his extradition and find out whether he can be sent to prison on abuse-of-power charges.

With the legion of Thaksin critics, mostly from the elite, intensifying their efforts to go the extra mile and punish him, the political voice of his supporters, nearly all from the ranks of the poor, has tapered off. At the same time, his opponents have not felt confident that his political space among the poor has shrunk. In sum, this is the clear view from Thailands immediate neighbourhood. More importantly, though, a genuine recognition of this obvious picture does not denote any kind of brief for or against Thaksin.

In a sense, the current trauma facing Thai politics need not merit much attention even in that countrys immediate neighbourhood. However, the story is different for the singular reason that ASEANs next summit is scheduled to take place in Bangkok in December. Outwardly, the powers-that-be in Bangkok have assured the group and its dialogue partners such as India and China that the summit will indeed take place. However, external observers see the quote-unquote notation for the Thai powers-that-be as an appropriate political caveat at this stage. Not without valid reasons.

Thailand, which prides itself on not having been colonised in the conventional sense of political history, has spoilt its copybook often in over a century. The saving grace, for a number of decades during this period, is that King Bhumibol Adulyadej has remained a respected father figure. Known for his compassion for the poor and rich alike and as a constitutional king who does not preside over an absolute monarchy, he has sometimes found it necessary to suggest or hint at a way forward out of the countrys chronic political crises.

If the current crisis has already lasted more than two years, despite such a uniquely Thai way of ordering political life through the good grace of a non-executive king, the reasons have much to do with the basics at other levels. Thailand remains caught between the lure of democracy, as a model of governance in the present wave of globalisation, and the appeal of military rule and interventions as the guarantor of presumptive stability.

The Thai elite continues to feel outwitted because Thaksin, who won the snap elections in April 2006 with ease, sought to underwrite his democratic spirit with an authoritarian streak as reflected in his pursuit of stability.

Unsurprisingly, the Thai elite, which for the most part undermined its credentials by cheering the military coup against Thaksin, is now in the forefront of purging the country of all traces of Thaksinisation. The task is easier identified than accomplished. Thaksins brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, is the Prime Minister, as this is written (an aspect that needs to be emphasised in Thailands deeply unsettled present).

Somchai is the second person to have become Prime Minister in the context of the 2006 elections that the coup masters, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin who toppled Thaksin when he was abroad, held last December. And, while it is nobodys case that Somchai is Thaksins alter ego, the Prime Minister is also no stranger to Thaksinisation a political alchemy of populism, globalised policies and a quest for stability at home and a role abroad.

Somchais immediate predecessor, a self-styled Thaksin proxy, Samak Sunderavej, was the first to win the 2006 elections that took place under the military-imposed Constitution, whose reform is a key political refrain in the ruling circles now. Samak, former Bangkok Governor, founded the Peoples Power Party (PPP) in time for the polls and as a successor to Thaksins Thai Rak Thai Party, whose legal ban the coup masters had engineered successfully.

Samak was all the time on the political hit list of the Thai elite, which brings together the educated class in a conventional sense of the term and the military heavyweights, including former generals. It is easy, therefore, to see how this elite systematically campaigned against Thaksin, despite his success in giving Thailand an international standing, before taking on Samak and now Somchai.

There are hardly any raised eyebrows in Bangkok that justice is being meted out to political wrongdoers at a pace far outstripping that required to reform the military-imposed constitutional dispensation in a democratic way. Samak was judicially disqualified on the grounds that his action of continuing to present, even after becoming Prime Minister, a television series on cooking, his hobby, was tantamount to failing the test on conflict of interest in high office.

A technical ruling or otherwise, the Constitutional Courts judgment, delivered on September 9, set a standard for new judicial activism, as it were, and created a political ambience for judging those in high office. And, on September 17, Somchai succeeded Samak, after the PPP convinced the doubters in its own camp as also its partners in the ruling coalition that there would be nothing amiss in a Thaksin relative being approved by Parliament for the post.

Thaksin, once the duly elected and undisputed ruler of Thailand, is now reduced to a state of hoping that the constitutional reforms being advocated by Somchai could somehow be enacted. With an anti-Thaksin group unrelenting in its campaign and with the Thai army getting embroiled in a territorial dispute with Cambodia, by October 24 the signs of true democratic reforms remained dim.

The only silver lining was that the Thai army, used to intermittent tenures at the helm of power, refused to use force to enforce an emergency decree issued by Samak to quell a prolonged protest by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in Bangkok. It calls for new politics that does not, in the eyes of independent observers, measure up as genuine democracy. At one stage, the groups leader, Chamlong Srimuang, highly regarded in military circles, was detained. But the Thai leaders are still clueless about a way out of the crisis.

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