Sunday, April 12, 2009

Jonathan Steele on Abhisit's useless charm

Less charm, more action

Thailand's prime minister may have charmed Gordon Brown, but he has yet to make an impact on the nation's real problems

Jonathan Steele, Sunday 29 March 2009 13.00 BST

Forget Gordon Brown's recent love-in with Barack Obama in Washington. What about his extraordinarily intense relationship with Thailand's new prime minister? Brown first met him in Davos in January, invited him to next week's G20 conference in London and, if that wasn't enough, hosted him a fortnight ago in Downing Street. Three encounters in three months. Not bad for a man in power for barely a hundred days.

It helps, of course, that Abhisit Vejjajiva is an Anglophile, born in Britain, educated at Eton and with a first-class degree from Oxford. His brains and international sophistication – unique for a Thai prime minister – have made him the darling of Bangkok's diplomats while his fierce opposition to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled last year to avoid imprisonment, delights most of the urban middle class.

But Abhisit faces an uphill struggle in wooing investors as the world recession intensifies. The country's image lies in tatters. First came a military coup in 2006, a throwback to a pre-globalisation era. Last year, in spite of the restoration of civilian rule, increasing polarisation led to months of demonstrations by "yellow shirts" v "red shirts" which culminated in the occupation of government house and Bangkok's airports – blatant crimes for which no-one has been charged. Then came a judicial coup, with the courts banning the then prime minister and over a hundred other politicians, thereby paving the way for Abhisit to be voted into power by a rump parliament.

Are the roots of the crisis economic or political? Globalisation has increased the gap between the country's still huge rural population and the cities in spite of Thaksin's welfare reforms. Landing in Bangkok, you see well-watered paddy fields glinting in the sunlight, but drive two hours east and vast acreages lie fallow in the dry season, their farmers unable to afford irrigation. Thousands of others have lost their land to forestry projects, dam-building, or gas pipelines.

Thaksin, who was the first man to complete a full term and be re-elected, mobilised the rural population. Yet his much-needed pro-poor policies and welfare subsidies did not cut into the lifestyle of Bangkok's middle class. The city's spacious and tasteful shopping centres make Bond Street and Oxford Street look crowded and tatty. What turned many in Bangkok against Thaksin was his media manipulation and political bullying while the old elite, rooted in royalism, the military, and an ossified civil service hated his challenge to their power.

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political scientist at Thammasat University, describes Thaksin's system as "authoritarian democracy". He was elected fairly by people who "could vote a government in but not influence the ways in which it governs". In office, Thaksin increasingly monopolised decision-making, controlled TV, and enriched himself and his friends. By contrast, Thailand's previous system, restored by the 2006 military coup, is "democratic authoritarianism" in which civil rights are granted as long as they don't threaten the country's traditional rulers. Others describe Thaksin as an ideologically confusing mixture of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Italy's businessman-politician Silvio Berlusconi.

Satha-Anand as well as a leading human rights lawyer, Somchai Homlaor, say political violence under Thaksin was unprecedented. Thousands were murdered by the police and army in a "war on drugs". Environmental activists disappeared, and an insurgency by the Muslim minority in southern Thailand was met with massive repression. "The culture of impunity, especially in the police, is very strong. No government even now can bring them to justice", Homlaor argues.

Thaksin's beneficial economic record cannot be undone, and Abhisit is keeping most of his programmes, including giving cheques to millions of low-income families as part of a stimulus package. The former prime minister's political shadow still looms. Claiming his trial was politically motivated and flawed, he still addresses rallies by phone from abroad. His remaining MPs are planning a no-confidence motion in Abhisit and want amnesty for all banned politicians (mainly their colleagues).

Yet after the turmoil of the last 30 months the country's politics seem to have relaxed. A pro-Thaksin rally that I watched in Bangkok last month felt ritualistic and good-natured rather than angry. (Another one yesterday seems to have been similar in tone). The protesters did not try to storm government house, so as to keep the moral high ground compared with the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) behaviour last year. Now the PAD is discussing whether to abandon street politics and become a party, a move which could split the anti-Thaksin vote when elections are called.

Homlaor takes an optimistic view. Although recent events tarnished the image of Thais as "soft smiling people", he believes there is greater restraint than in his student days "when protesters rushed to gun-shops to be able to fire on the police". Only ten have died in political violence since 2006 compared to much larger numbers in the turmoil of 1973, 1976, and 1992. The coup of 2006 lasted little more than a year. "We've created a norm that the military will not seize and retain power, and a politician will not become a dictator under a parliamentary system", he says.

There is increasing debate about Thailand's biggest taboo, the role of the monarchy, and the draconian lese-majeste laws which criminalise critics. "The King favours the other side, but we can't say that. They'll put us in gaol. We call him the invisible hand", a middle-aged woman on the pro-Thaksin march told me.

Kavi Chongkittavorn of the Bangkok paper the Nation highlights a paradox that runs against China's paradigm of a controlled press and an increasingly free web. In Thailand, he says, "while the printed and general media environment is pretty free, filtering of the internet is on the rise, judging from the numbers of blocked and shut websites". The authorities claim they contained pornography or insulted the monarchy, but Chongkittavorn says only about 100 of the 4,800 shut sites were pornographic. The rest dealt with the monarchy and "most were just disapproving, nothing serious".

Where does this leave Abhisit, as he strives to present a modern face to the world? The Bangkok pundits point out that his government shut over 2000 websites, angering young middle-class Thais. They applaud his promise to revive the stalled investigation of one of the most prominent abuses under Thaksin, the police abduction of a well-known human rights lawyer. But until the killers are brought to justice it is too early to know if official impunity is ending. Abhisit has talked of improving the way the lese-majeste laws are "interpreted", a phrase he used in a Financial Times interview. This sounds like interfering in the administration of justice rather than persuading parliament to soften or scrap the law.

Thailand's economic recession is as serious as every other country's. Gordon Brown may be enamoured by Abhisit's efforts on that front. But most Thais know their prime minister's control over global financial forces is limited. Changing Thailand's standards of governance is the area where he could make an impact – provided he has the will.

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