Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thailand: Update--Thaksin Shinawatra, 64, Unlikely to See "Land of Smiles" Any Time Soon

According to Reuters, Thailand's political future is cloudier than ever, yet one thing is for sure, it is unlikely that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, 64, won't be coming home any time soon.

Having fled into exile to avoid a jail sentence for graft in 2008, Thaksin had hoped the climate was ripe for him to return to Thailand. Yet, that now that seems very, very likely. 

Protesters have marched for weeks in Bangkok streets, clashing with riot police and vowing to overthrow the "Thaksin regime" and replace it with "good people,” effectively suspending Thailand's democratic system. The “honeymoon” period of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, 46, is seemingly over. Her government is simply “hanging on,” as best it can.

The mistake for the Prime Minister, it seems, was her Puea Thai party's attempt to ram through the legislature a political amnesty bill that outraged opponents, who called it a blatant effort to whitewash the divisive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of his crimes, which resulted in his being deposed in a coup in 2006.

The Senate rejected the bill out of hand, and Yingluck shelved it, yet the damage was already done. Thaksin's opponents among the royalist, military-backed establishment and the parliamentary opposition had the pretext they needed to launch the latest salvo.

"Through the amnesty, he tested the waters, but these were deep, deep waters and that has provided the protesters with an opportunity to remove a threat to the old establishment."

Though a ceasefire of sorts has been declared between demonstrators and the government to mark the 86th birthday of the much revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday (December 5), the battle lines have again been drawn in a long-running conflict pitting a decades-old oligarchy against a new one that has emerged under Thaksin's rule.

Few Thais believe that Yingluck's party that won a 2011 election in a landslide by campaigning on Thaksin's name and populist policies is being run independently of him. 

The cabinet is stacked with his closest allies with whom he communicates via Skype and many Puea Thai lawmakers have met him overseas at his exiled homes in Hong Kong and Dubai.

Under Yingluck, Thailand rebounded from the worst flood crisis in 50 years with economic growth of a surprising 6.5% in 2012.

COMMENT: A policy of tax rebates for first-time buyers of homes and cars won some middle-class support while a rice subsidy shored up already strong rural backing garnered from almost free healthcare, village grants and cheap loans under Thaksin.

Combined with a hefty war chest amassed from a telecommunications business and ventures into gold and diamond mines and even a Premier League soccer club, billionaire Thaksin has the cash to spend on modern marketing campaigns that have won him or his proxies every election since 2001. 

It is likely they would win another if a “snap poll” were to be called something Yingluck has refused to do, largely because she is not a “street fighter” like her brother.

That leaves the situation in a stalemate if Thailand wants to remain a democracy. 

In the end, if Yingluck Shinawatra’s government collapses, Thaksin no doubt has the motivation and money to orchestrate a power grab, regardless of whether he is in Thailand or not.

The real loser, potentially, is Yingluck, whose brother manipulated her into seeking the PM’s job only until he could take over. In effect, Yingluck was nothing more than a pawn. 

Unfortunately, the protest movement has grown enormously in recent weeks to the point that Yingluck’s amnesty bill has soured urban Thais on both Shinawatras, leaving the protest movement well-positioned to seize control.