Sunday, March 02, 2008

Back to the Future

Well, he’s back. Last week Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, returned to his country for the first time since he was ousted from power in a coup d’etat in September, 2006, there to face charges of corruption, which he will probably beat.

When the generals took power on that rainy night in Bangkok, it looked like Thaksin and his supporters were finished. But in an amazing turnaround his allies and supporters, if not the ex-premier himself, are now back in the saddle.

It’s as if those 17 months under partial martial law were nothing but a rumor.

To recap some of the recent events. After the Thai Rak Thai Party was disbanded, Thaksin’s supporters regrouped under the banner of the Peoples Power Party. It won very close to a majority in parliament in the first post-coup general election in December.

PPP leader Samak Sundaravaj had little trouble recruiting some smaller parties into a coalition and formed a government with himself as prime minister. The new premier lost little time getting into hot water with some boorish comments denying any deaths in the October 6, 1976, massacre of protesting students at Thammasat University.

Next he announced that a priority of his new government would be a renewed war on drugs. One of the criticisms levied against Thaksin, at least among human rights advocates, was his anti-drug trafficking campaign, in which some 2,500 people are said to have been murdered in extra-judicial killings.

Thaksin, it is said, gave tacit approval to the killings when he told the police to eliminate drugs from society through the use of “extreme measures”. This new emphasis is a “cause for worry”, wrote The Nation newspaper.

Samak said that he wouldn’t shed a tear if 5,000 drug pushers were killed by their own kind. “Such crass statements from government leaders who claim a public mandate through a democratic election go against the very principle of the rule of law, intoned The Nation.

It almost makes one nostalgic for the gentlemanly former interim prime minister, Suraya Chulanot, who administered the country during the post-coup months.

I don’t recall that drug use has been such a concern of late. As far as I can remember, it was not a prime concern of the previous administration. One issue that was a growing concern was the expanding insurgency in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces. And here the new government doesn’t have much to say. But in truth, the generals who took power in 2006 didn’t accomplish much on this front either. Drive-by shootings and assassination squad murders of opponents of separatism remain too commonplace.

On the economic front, one is not likely to hear much about the “sufficiency” economy, which is one of the pet theories of the King, and thus was at least given lip service during the interregnum months. The new government favors pro-growth policies that used to be called “Thaksinomics.”

As for Thaksin himself, he will be spending most of his time defending himself from various corruption charges. His first action on landing in Bangkok on February 28 was to go to court and post bail. (Ironically, Thaksin’s nemesis, publishing mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, was convicted of criminal libel the day after the election and is free on appeal).

The generals who seized power made much of Thaksin’s supposed corruption. Yet during the months they were in power they seemed to come through with few of the goods. It is true that Thaksin gamed the system for his personal and political advantage, but that may not be enough to convict him of anything.

That included the sale of his telecoms empire, the Shin Corp, on which he realized a huge personal profit and paid no taxes. That transaction, though technically legal, angered the people, especially as it went to a foreign (Singaporean) entity, and it of his new government would be a renewed war on drugs. One of the criticism levied against thaksin
led directly to his downfall.


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