Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Thailand’s Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont share two things in common. They both came to power six months ago in September, 2006. And for both it has been downhill ever since.

Of course, the circumstances of their coming to power were very different. Abe worked his way up through the ranks of Japan’s long-time ruling Liberal Democratic Party, finally succeeding Junichiro Koizumi, who chose not to seek another term.

Surayud worked his way up through the ranks of the Royal Thai Army ultimately becoming its commanding officer, then he retired. When his fellow generals ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup d’etat on September they chose Surayad to head the civilian government.

Both premiers started off with high popularity ratings. Abe basked in the reflected public approval of his predecessor, while Surayud benefited from the initial popularity of the coup, especially among the Bangkok middle class, happy to see Thaksin’s backside.

Since then both have seen their approval numbers plummet. Abe’s approval numbers have sunk into the 40% range. In Thailand it is a race to see when Thaksin’s rising approval numbers pass Surayud’s sinking ones.

The Thai coup leaders have become the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, moving it seems, from one bungle to the next. Surayud may be a well meaning and serious public servant, but he is clearly no Anand Panyarachan, the highly regarded interim premier who served after the 1991 coup.

As the coup approaches the six-month mark, the Thai media has become scathing in its criticism of the regime. It says something positive about the junta that it tolerates such criticism, but it also fuels occasional rumors of yet another coup – a kind of coup-against - a coup by elements in the army who think the junta is too soft.

Abe has no such fears, yet his first six months have not lived up to the promise that his easy selection seemed to foretell. He got off to a good start when, just weeks after taking power, he visited China and South Korea to repair strained relations with Beijing and Seoul.

Since then it seems his government has been beset with gaffes, leaving the impression that he can’t control his cabinet. First his health minister talked about women as “baby-making machines”. Then his defense minister said he felt the US invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

Abe gave them a talking-to, but almost immediately, his headstrong foreign minister Taro Aso, said similar things about the US, Japan’s main ally. But his most curious action of late was to plunge headlong into the sensitive issue of forced prostitution during World War II.

Of course, Abe’s conservative views on Japan’s wartime history are well-known. But he managed to finesse the question of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in the lead up to his election and thereafter. But why reopen old wounds about the “comfort women” now?

After all, the premier’s remarks that he didn’t think that the women had been coerced by the Imperial Army to become soldiers’sex slaves came just as Japanese representatives were sitting down with North Korean negotiators in Hanoi. (The meeting broke up quickly – no reason why, maybe the comfort women remarks?)

The main stumbling block to normal relations from Japan’s point of view is the north’s abduction of its nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. But if Tokyo won’t come clean about the comfort women – an issue that particularly animates Koreans (North and South) - why should Pyongyang come clean about the abductees?

Abe may have been moved to comment because of a resolution before the US House of Representatives urging Japan to give a more forthright apology on the issue (which begs the question as to why the Congress, which usually and wisely avoids these kinds of historical issues, is busying itself with it now).

Both Surayud and Abe had the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of two larger-then-life predecessors. Whatever one thinks of Thaksin, he certainly imposed his personality on Thai politics and still does. Junichiro Koizumi also was one of the most vivid political figures in Japan’s post-war history. It almost had to be downhill.


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