Sat, 27 Sep 2003

Thailand faces prosperity and contradictions

Weerayut Chokchaimadon The Nation Asia News Network Bangkok

In the name of economic development, PM Thaksin is moving to centralise all power in his hands

Forget about allocating power to the people. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party won't do that. It was never their plan.

To say they will is a big lie.

Thaksin says his government promotes a policy of decentralisation. He defines this as allocating more power to local people as the Constitution's architects intended. But while he calls his policy "decentralisation", the way he intends to implement that policy shows his real plan: To weave a web of power and have all sectors of the state under his thumb.

The clearest example of this is his effort to break a long tradition of unreachable bureaucrats and introduce new CEO provincial governors.

Working in Thaksin's shadow and serving at his pleasure, these governors will not be chosen for their free-thinking skills. Thaksin expects them to follow orders from Bangkok, not respond to local concerns. He has given them a laundry list of projects to pursue and six months to show progress -- by Thaksin's standards, of course -- or be sacked.

Those projects include Thaksin's war on drugs; Thaksin's one tambon/one product promotional scheme; and Thaksin's Village Fund to give Bt1 million loans for business development.

In addition, the CEO arrangement gives power to each governor to interfere in activities of local administrative bodies -- tambon (sub-district) and provincial organisations, and municipalities. From now on, these bodies will not have the local autonomy and freedom of thought to devise programmes based on local knowledge and needs. The governors will decide what must be done and how, based on national goals drawn up by Thaksin and his people.

Thaksin wants to curb the freedom of local bodies, which they had under previous governments, because he fears they could undermine his various projects. In his mind, anything that gets in his way is considered bad.

In Thaksin's world, we can't have local influential figures with their own wealth and power base. We can't have competing visions and solutions to our nation's problems. In Thaksin's mind, such competition would undermine national stability and development.

Thaksin even ordered all ministries to change rules to aid these governors in asserting their power. The governors now control the money, which used to be allocated by the ministries. They can reshuffle personnel. They can now run their local anti- drug and anti-mafia campaigns, not the central government.

This appears to be decentralisation, but with Thaksin pulling all the strings in Bangkok, the plan shoves aside the bureaucracy. It's one-man rule.

Surprised? Why should you be? After all, he didn't run Shin Corp as a democracy. Thaksin is acting no differently as prime minister. To him Thailand is just another company, perhaps a bigger version of Shin Corp.

How can Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party get away with this?

Simple: The public doesn't care.

Thaksin knows voters well enough to know how to manipulate them. His administration is on a permanent election campaign. He makes it a point to provide handouts in the form of populist policies that pander to people's unprincipled wants and needs, almost daily.

The best examples of this are the Ua Athorn projects. These include discount life insurance, cheap housing loans, and discounts for buying computers and surfing the Internet. As long as he keeps offering free or cheap goodies to a public willing to accept bribes to vote for a particular candidate, Thaksin has nothing to worry about.

It's the height of cynicism, and it works.

Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to think they can expose Thaksin's game and get back into power. Their sincerity is fine -- but completely unrealistic.

They think that if they blow the whistle on Thaksin, the public will rise up and "throw the bums out".

But they're wrong. All the voters care about is getting something for nothing (or next to nothing), and Thaksin is delivering.

To succeed, the Democrats have to do much more. They need to show that they can deliver, too, but not at the expense of autocratic, one-man rule.

Thaksin has set up a dilemma: Either have strong-man rule and prosper, or have a democratic country and be poor. The Democrats must expose the fallacy of Thaksin's position; they must make the case that a country can be both rich and democratic, that it's not either-or.

After all, the West has largely done it. So have Asian countries like Taiwan and South Korea.

Why not Thailand?

Why not the Democrats?