Sat, 04 Nov 2000

Thaksin Shinawatra: The real tragedy

By Karim Raslan

KUALA LUMPUR: When it was first discovered -- two months ago -- that the telecom tycoon and political aspirant Thaksin Shinawatra's household servants were amongst the world's richest domestic employees (four of them including Boonchu Rianpradop, his housekeeper were worth in total well over US$300 million), the Thai press, understandably went to town.

In an enviable display of democracy at work, the "Fourth Estate" led by the influential Thai-language newspapers Matichon and Thai Rath (both of which had hitherto been slavishly supportive of Thaksin) lambasted the leader of the Thai Rak Thai party for his alleged failure to disclose his true financial position.

Within days Thaksin's seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut had been brought to a summary halt. Distracted by the gathering scandal and its impact on his party he was forced to fend off what he alleged was little more than a well-timed political assault by the incumbent Democrat-led government.

Nonetheless, the velocity of Thaksin's political rise had caught the city's political class by surprise and many, including the Prime Minister, Chuan Leekpai and his closest advisors had been wrong-footed.

For a few weeks as if the former senior police officer turned billionaire would occupy the highest elected office in the kingdom.

However, most observers in focusing on the financial shenanigans have overlooked other aspects of Thaksin's ascent that have important implications both for Thailand and the rest of the region.

As Thailand (along with the Philippines and Indonesia) grapples with the reality of an increasingly open and democratic public arena, politics has assumed a different complexion in two key areas.

Firstly, the public has grown increasingly unhappy and distrustful of the traditional political elite, sparking off a search for alternative leaders.

Almost inevitably self-made men from outside the charmed circle of the army, the civil service and the Bangkok-born aristocracy have risen to the fore.

A major component of their rise has been the perceived failure of the conventional political class: it's corruption and authoritarianism.

Interestingly, similar trends are discernible elsewhere in the region. Depending on the country these figures could be businessmen such as Thaksin, actors such as Estrada or religious figures such as Nik Aziz.

In the case of Thaksin, there is palpable sense -- within Bangkok -- of the inappropriateness of the man's ambitions. In a nation that remains in essence a monarchy, the nakedness of Thaksin's greed for power as well as his willingness to utilize his vast wealth, has riled the traditional Sukhumvit-elite.

Many compare Thaksin unfavorably with leaders such as Prem Tinsulonda, Anand Panyarachun and even Chuan Leekpai, men who have always endeavored maintain the pretense of being reluctant candidates called upon -- essentially by His Majesty -- to serve the nation.

Nonetheless, Thaksin has promoted his business successes mercilessly. With the Thai economy becalmed he has argued that his hands-on experience will be enough to jump start the engine of growth once again. Given the level of disillusionment with the Chuan Leekpai's government, his message has been well received, especially in Bangkok.

The second theme that emerges from Thaksin's career to date is the realization that the practice of politics, notwithstanding the high-minded talk of transparency and accountability, is not going to change overnight.

In the attempt to cobble together a coalition to challenge the incumbent government, the newly emerging political figures will succumb to the corruption and authoritarianism they hoped to defeat.

As a result it could be argued that we are entering an era of political schizophrenia or as Chalidaporn Songsamphan, a political scientist from Thammasat University argues a period marked by "the dual character of its politics."

This is because, there will be a marked difference between the political discourse in the cities and the rural areas. In the urban constituencies the discourse will become more open and westernized by dint of higher education levels and greater economic opportunities.

By comparison the rural areas will continue to lag behind, presenting an enormous challenge to reformist politicians.

Furthermore, the democratization and the decentralization of power -- essentially the empowerment of the majority -- will only serve to enhance the role of regional power-brokers.

As the cities reject old-style, corrupt leaders, the political warlords in the various regions will manage tighten to their grip on the civil service, the law enforcement agencies and the lines of patronage.

In practice this will mean that whilst national leaders will present a wholesome "new age" scenario of transparency and accountability to the urbanized voters and newspaper journalists, the vote-buying and shady deals will continue for the foreseeable future.

When Thaksin launched his party Thai Rak Thai he made much of his claim to represent the new face of Thai politics with snappy slogans such as "Think in a new way: act in a new way."

Employing the most seasoned political spin-doctors and speech- writers he was quoted as saying "the movement towards globalization includes transparency, a system of checks and balances, participation, the quality of life and liberty. All of these are part of the new Constitution, so we have to face it and adjust ourselves to it."

However, instead of taking his own words literally and building a party that was committed to these values, Thaksin quickly realized that the bifurcation of political landscape left him with no choice but to engage with the warlords. In business terms one could say he rejected organic growth preferring to become a corporate raider.

As Chalidaporn describes, "Thaksin launched his party with considerable fanfare as well as many new faces including Sudarat Keyuraphan, their mayoral candidate for Bangkok. However, very quickly he started behaving like all the other political leaders. He accepted all the old-fashioned politicians into Thai Rak Thai."

In short, Thaksin set out to acquire as many sitting MPs as possible in one of the most shameless bouts of political influence-buying ever experienced in Thailand.

Sadly this route has effectively undermined the credibility and the legitimacy of his party. Moreover recently his willingness (in the face of disapproval from his party members) to accept a well known political warlord, the Sa Kaew MP, Snoh Thienthong has reinforced the impression that he was willing to do anything, without exception, to secure the Premiership for himself.

Thaksin's short-term approach along with its emphasis on his personality to the exclusion of all else means that Thai Rak Thai is unlikely to develop an institutional culture.

Unfortunately, the party will not become a strong alternative to the Democrats (a venerable thirty-year old institution) that many had hoped for.

Moreover, the manner with which the Thai Rak Thai's power base has been augmented will mean that if Thaksin does manage to secure the Premiership, his party will have neither the discipline nor the shared values to hold it together in office. As a shaky coalition of opportunists it is unlikely that it will survive the in-fighting that accompanies an electoral victory as the various members scramble to secure Cabinet positions.

Thaksin's failure to build the Thai Rak Thai into a coherent political party with a set of shared values, will ultimately lead to his political demise. However -- and in all fairness -- the dual character of regional politics means that it is almost impossible to craft a vision that straddles the all-important urban-rural divide.

Thaksin's challenge is little different from the challenges facing other ambitious opposition leaders in Southeast Asia. Coalition building can be deceptively easy in opposition. Once in office the lack of shared values can quickly reduce a once- unified front to chaos.

The writer is a regional observer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.