Political Comebacks

While Malaysia braces for Anwar’s inevitable return to Malaysian politics in April, Thailand prepares itself for Thakin’s return maybe even later this year. Thaksin avoided contact with Thai PM Samak Sundaravej, possibly so that the latter is not seen as a seat-warmer. When Thaksin re-enters Thai politics, would he be friendly with Singapore again? Also, how does Anwar Ibrahim see Singapore?

Anurag Viswanath: Thailand`s comeback kid – Thaksin has the last laugh
New Delhi March 06, 2008

The former Thai Prime Minister has had a remarkable turnaround in fortune in 17 months.

The wheels of fortune, it seems, have turned a full circle for the consummate political maverick, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006 — into exile and what then seemed like the end of the road. In a well-orchestrated media blitzkrieg, Thaksin returned to Thailand last week. Kneeling down and kissing the Thai soil, he drove away to the Supreme Court, only to be released later on an eight million baht (about Rs 1 crore) bail. His return not only marks a vindication of sorts and a personal triumph, but also signals a turning of page in the current Thai political scenario.

Thaksin’s exile was well-spent — from check-mating the junta that ousted him in the September 2006 coup and out-manoeuvring current political players to ensuring a new avatar for his disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party, TRT (Thais Love Thais) via a new political outfit, Palang Prachachon, PPP (Peoples Power Party) and engineering its win in the December 2007 elections. He also bought the Manchester City football club in the English Premier League for $162 million and sought to bring in a couple of Thai players — a move that endeared him to millions in football-crazy Thailand.

The PPP rode on the back of Thaksin’s popularity and is currently at the helm of a six-party coalition, in control of 315 of the 480 seats. The party, manned by Thaksin loyalists and royalists, equated a vote for itself as one for Thaksin and won almost two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, paving the way for his comeback.

The PPP-led government headed by rightist, royalist and Thaksin crony Samak Sundaravej has cornered the main opposition, the Democrats led by Abhisit Vejjajiva. With 165 seats in the lower house, it has led the Democrats into the political boondocks. It has also relegated the Peoples Alliance for Democracy, a 26-party coalition of anti-Thaksin groups, into an inglorious footnote. The vicious Thaksin witch-hunt since September 2006 is over too, as the dismembered junta finds itself on the backfoot, and is making conciliatory noises. Luckily for the junta, they had the foresight of amnesty written into the new 18th Constitution of 2007, providing themselves a way out.

Thaksin’s return, following his wife’s return earlier this year, is ostensibly to face graft charges ranging from tax evasion and concealment of assets in family-owned SC Asset Corp to his wife Potjaman Shinawatra’s embroilment in a high-profile land scam. The land scam involves Potjaman’s buying of prime land from a state agency in 2003, for literally a pittance. His return also comes in the wake of the PPP government fighting to find its feet, and allegedly warding off an “invisible hand” out to destabilise it, possibly a reference to the armed forces.

Thaksin is the king-maker for now. The current Prime Minister has been referred to as Thaksin’s lapdog. The present political dispensation is manned by Thaksin loyalists such as Noppadon Pattama (the Shinawatra family lawyer who managed Thaksin’s cases), who was rewarded with the foreign ministry portfolio. Thaksin’s inner circle member Surapong Suebwonglee is the current finance minister (who incidentally wants Thaksin as his economic advisor).

At the heap of the political bonfire is the present Prime Minister, ultra-rightist and royalist, Samak Sundaravej. Samak shot into the public eye as a smart, earnest boy on a TV show, Tick, Tack, Toe in the late 1950s. Since his entry into politics as a Democrat, he has been a public figure famously known for his cooking show on TV and his stint as the Bangkok governor, which he won by a million votes in 2000. Infamously, he has been associated with “having blood on his hands” due to his controversial role in the Tank Corps Radio Station, which critics say egged and escalated the clampdown on student leaders in the October 1976 pro-democracy demonstrations that led to a virtual massacre of students. This dark blotch on Thailand’s history, an epic tragedy, has been one of the cornerstones of Thailand’s battle for democracy.

Samak’s recent interview to CNN correspondent Dan Rivers has raked up skeletons in the closet. After refuting charges of being a puppet, he opened up a Pandora’s box by his outright rejection and re-interpretation of Thai history. This refers to his dismissive comment, “For me, no deaths, one unlucky guy being beaten and burned in Sanam Luang” in October 1976, disregarding the bloodbath of left-leaning, pro-democracy activists. Sanam Luang is a field in Bangkok in close proximity to the Thammasat University which was the centre of student activism in the 1970s. This provocative comment has stirred a hornet’s nest, as many students were massacred at the time. This must make Samak’s allies and partners, as well as ex-activists who are in the present government (such as the current finance minister, himself a well-known student activist of the 1970s) cringe.

To top this, in his interview to Al-Jazeera, Samak took the line that the Tak Bai incident in 2004 in the southern Narathiwat province, where 78 southerners died as a result of suffocation when loaded on to an army truck, was the result of people falling on top of one another, condoning the brutality of the armed forces and their controversial role in handling the Muslim uprising in southern Thailand.

His cabinet which is also called the “ugly cabinet” has some intensely polarising figures. The volatile situation in the four southern provinces of Yala, Songkla, Narathiwat and Patani has continued unabated for several years. Civil society is also waging a war on the Computer-Related Offences Act passed by the interim National Legislative Assembly (of the junta), which has banned an estimated 80,000 websites on the grounds of either being disrespectful to the monarch or having pornographic content. Samak’s future role is also not clear, and indications are he is unwilling to have shots called from behind the scene.

For now, Thaksin is clearly on the ascendant. He has risen, like the mythical Phoenix from the ashes. It is likely that many, if not all, charges against him will be, over time, buried, given that he has the loyalty of the ruling PPP. Although he has publicly stated that all he wants to do is to be an ordinary citizen, he will undoubtedly play a key role in ‘guiding’ the government. Thaksin has clearly the mandate of the vast majority of Thailand, except largely the intelligentsia. His is in an enviable position — to be the real power, but without the accountability of office.


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