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Here come the judges

The Nation - 29 April 2006

Political cultures don't evolve at an even pace. They amble along most of the time then change rapidly in periods of exceptional stress. For Thailand this is such a period.

There's no cause for surprise or dismay. Over the last generation the economy has quintupled in size, borders have come down, the social profile has been transformed, aspirations have multiplied and new conflicts have emerged. The political culture is stumbling to catch up.

This week the judiciary was summoned to play a greater role in the political life of the nation. His Majesty the King said: "Supreme Court judges have the right to talk to other courts, the Constitution and administrative courts. There is nothing to forbid this. The Supreme Court has the right to speak out, to make rulings. Thus I request you consider matters and consult with other judges, with the Administrative Court, about what should be done."

Up to now the courts have played a very limited role in Thai politics compared with other democracies. There are no precedent-setting judgements punctuating Thailand's political history. Prior to the last few days most people would not have known the name or face of a single senior judge.

The 1997 Constitution was supposed to be framed around the principle of the separation of the three major powers, executive, legislative and judiciary, but the charter concentrated heavily on the first two of these. For providing checks and balances on the executive, the charter did not look to the existing judiciary but rather set up a raft of new "independent bodies", including a Constitution Court outside the mainstream judiciary. The charter seemed to confirm the judiciary's exclusion from a political role.

In the main academic study of the 1997 Constitution ("Reforming Thai Politics", edited by Duncan McCargo), the judiciary does not merit an entry in the index. The new administrative courts are mentioned only once in the study, without comment or analysis. They were not rated as a significant part of the reform.

The new importance of the judiciary is a result of what has happened since.

The executive became far too powerful. Thai Rak Thai's election victory and acquisition of minor parties reduced the legislature to a purely decorative role. Thaksin argued that an executive legitimised by election was supreme and the independent bodies had no right to impose checks and balances: "It's strange that a leader who was voted in by 19 million people has to bow to organisations composed only of appointed commissioners and judges, whom people do not have a chance to choose."

The key weakness of the Constitution proved to be the fantasy that an apolitical Senate would appoint members of "independent bodies" who were truly independent enough to act as checks on the executive. It took around a year to organise a government majority in the Senate through money and patronage. This majority has been maintained and probably strengthened in the new Senate by investing up front in the local networks that manage elections. The checks were cancelled and the balances overturned.

We have seen the consequences in the Election Commission's conduct of the recent poll. It destroyed the principle of the secret ballot, connived in wholesale fraud over candidacies, handed down rulings that effectively legitimised vote-buying and repeatedly broke its own rules and regulations. In the service of the executive, this body has undermined all the principles for which an independent commission was created.

People have not automatically turned to the judiciary as a counterweight to the overly powerful executive, simply because there is no such tradition from the past. Rather the exact opposite happened. The overly powerful executive tried to recruit the judiciary to crush attempts to monitor and criticise the executive's actions. This resulted in the epidemic of defamation suits that broke out last year and the rash of lese-majeste suits in recent weeks.

But the political role of the judiciary had begun to change even before the royal summons. Most attempts to use the courts to harass and intimidate critics have failed. Judges have quietly rejected many of the defamation actions. In the high-profile case of Shin Corp against Supinya Klangnarong, the judges not only threw out the case but also wrote an eloquent and precedent-setting ruling upholding the principles of free speech and the public right to criticism.

Most important has been the role of the administrative courts. These were created under the 1997 Constitution but with a major difference from the "independent bodies". They are part of the mainstream judiciary, with only some minor special features. The commission overseeing the appointments of administrative judges has three members appointed by the legislature, but the other 10 are judges elected by their peers.

This makes the administrative courts free from the political-patronage networks that have ensnared the 1997 Constitution's "independent bodies". The administrative courts have used this independence to hand down several bold rulings. They have taken decisions on grounds of "public interest", most strikingly in the case involving Egat privatisation.

Previously the courts shied away from such rulings, hiding behind the idea they could decide only in favour of directly injured parties. This was a major reason the courts did not have the same impact in Thai politics as in other democratic systems. That is now changing.

The coming amendment of the Constitution should take the judiciary more seriously as a way to balance the executive, but if the political role of the judiciary is set to expand, there is a need for internal changes. The judiciary was not subject to the reforming impulse of the 1990s. The courts are overloaded. Procedures are primitive. Legal education is narrow.

Thai democracy will be strengthened if the courts play a bigger role as upholders of the rule of law in the political jungle. This could be a major outcome of the current crisis, but the judiciary will have to reform itself to perform this role well.

Chang Noi - The Nation

Thaksin's incredible farewell
Persuading Thailand's strongman to let go of political power won't be easy despite this week's messy election. Peter Alford reports from Bangkok


IS he really gone? On Tuesday night, Thaksin Shinawatra told the nation he would resign as Thailand's Prime Minister as soon as a new leader was in place. But even that was too long a wait to shake off the dust of Government House.

Thaksin walked out of the prime minister's office the next day, telling his colleagues not to expect him back. He embraced distraught supporters outside the ruling Thai Rak Thai party headquarters.

He remains acting Prime Minister but in form alone, Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said after Thaksin's last cabinet meeting. A new cabinet would be submitted to King Bhumibol Adulyadej in May, but Thaksin's name would not be on the list.

"At that moment he will be completely out of the Government," Kantathi tells Inquirer.

Several of Thaksin's closest colleagues, including Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan and government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee, burst into tears when Thaksin told cabinet on Wednesday morning it was goodbye time.

Why then, after such a leave-taking, do so many Thais doubt they've seen the last of the strongman who contrived to be the best-loved as well as one of the most loathed leaders in modern Thailand's history?

Because he will continue leading a party that is likely to have at least 400 MPs out of 500 in the new parliament. Because Thai Rak Thai is his creation, as are many of its policies.

Because for five years he has enjoyed the awesome authority and commercial synergies that came from being a domineering PM as well as one of the kingdom's richest men.

Because many Thais genuinely love the man and in last Sunday's snap election majorities in the populous and poor northeast and the north demonstrated overwhelmingly they still want him as leader.

This is not a man for quiet retirement, argues former senior senator Kraisak Choonhavan, son of the last prime minister to be overthrown by the Thai army.

"This guy is probably the toughest case of one of the worst kinds of politicians we have had in Thailand's modern history."

Like many who tried to use constitutional means to curb him, Kraisak thinks the job of disentangling Thaksin from power has barely started. "Our constitution was not written with a person such as Thaksin in mind."

But when the "people's constitution" was passed in 1997 with the express purpose of curbing political abuses of power, many people thought it would do precisely the opposite. Drafted into General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's last cabinet, the Shin Corp tycoon made acceptance of the new charter a condition of joining.

Major-General Chamlong Srimuang, as deputy prime minister in 1994, asked the unelected Thaksin to be foreign minister. Chamlong was impressed by Thaksin's brains, directness and particularly his ideas for using economic and social policies to lift up the poor.

Chamlong in 2001 accepted a job as adviser to the new PM, but he grew doubtful and then angry during Thaksin's second term. In January, after the fateful Shin Corp sale, Chamlong led his "Dharma army" into the People's Alliance for Democracy campaign against his former protege. It was a moral duty, he said. "And I think there is a need for me to criticise his faults because I am the one who took him into politics."

Modern Thailand has had headstrong leaders and clever leaders, but they were rarely the same person. It has had prime ministers who became astonishingly rich in office but never before one who arrived in power as a super-tycoon. No elected Thai prime minister before Thaksin in 2001 had obtained a single-party majority or completed a four-year term. Then, in February last year he won an unprecedented 377-123 parliamentary majority. Thaksin's first term was a dynamic contrast to the exhausted Democrats, who'd steered Thailand back from the 1997-98 regional financial crisis.

He began stimulating the domestic economy to reduce Thailand's excessive, dangerous reliance on export industries. For the poor, he implemented the long-promised "Bt30 health scheme" (no consultation or treatment in the public system to cost more than 30 baht, about $2) and village funds channelling cash directly into rural communities.

He embraced globalisation, multilaterally through the World Trade Organisation as well as in a regional agreement and with a slew of bilateral free trade agreements. He signed his first FTA with John Howard in Canberra in 2004. But there was always the dark, authoritarian side.

There was the seventh-month "war on drugs" in 2003 in which the police slaughtered more than 2200 actual and accused traffickers. There was the botched security policy in the southern provinces that helped re-ignite a violent Muslim insurgency.

And there was always Shin Corp.

The computer company Thaksin started while still a police colonel morphed into a telecommunications group in 1990.

He won a sole concession to build and operate a state-of-the-art 900MHz mobile phone network, paying in return heavy concession fees to the government. He also got a 30-year exclusive licence to operate a commercial satellite service.

The deals epitomised the Thaksin method: build new-generation businesses as close to government and as protected from competition as possible. By 2001, Shin Corp was dominant in handphones, private television, internet services and satellite services.

But Thaksin's previous attempt to juggle Shin Corp and his political ambitions had returned to haunt him. The National Counter-Corruption Commission indicted him on corruption charges for hiding part of his Shin Corp wealth in his ministerial asset statements for 1997.

In January 2001, while Thaksin was awaiting parliamentary confirmation, the Constitutional Court voted to accept the NCCC indictment. Thais gasped - mostly in horror - as the unprecedentedly popular new PM faced a five-year political ban. Seven months later many gasped again when the court voted 8-7 to acquit, though even Thaksin had made preparations for a "holiday from politics".

"The behaviour of the Constitutional Court was the most serious mistake that Thai politics suffered," says Kanin Boonsuwan, one of the constitution drafters who is now a candidate for this month's Senate election. "Five years ago, I argued the proposition that we must choose between the person and the system. We chose the person and we lost the system."

From then on, conflict-of-interest considerations were elbowed aside, along with the efforts of a minority of senators, often led by Kraisak, to bring the Thaksin ministry to book. The watchdog authorities quailed and began, in some cases, behaving coarsely themselves.

Last year the National Constitution Commission became practically defunct, after all nine commissioners were removed for illegally voting themselves a big pay rise.

Before he became PM, Thaksin had put his Shin Corp interests at arm's length and they were officially controlled by his wife, Pojaman, son Panthongtae, first daughter Praethongtharn, and members of Pojaman's Damapong family. But Shin Corp kept up its dealings with the government.

The Board of Investment gave an established Shin Corp satellite affiliate, IP Star, an eight-year tax holiday on offshore earnings and imported equipment. The value of this treatment, usually available only to new businesses the government wanted to foster, was estimated at 16.4 billion baht.

In late 2003 a regional budget airline took off from Bangkok, aided by the Thai Government's removal of floor price restrictions on tickets, grant of cheap landing rights and the receipt of several lucrative routes from state-owned carrier Thai Airways. The new player, Air Asia Aviation, was 51 per cent owned by Shin Corp.

So it came to pass that on January 23 this year the Shinawatra and Damapong sold their combined 49.6 per cent stake in Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings for 73.3 billion baht. The Singapore Government investment company then moved to take full control.

The sale was preceded by a flurry of transactions, in some cases involving a tax haven company, Ample Rich, that since 1999 had been one means of keeping Thaksin's family legally separate from large blocks of Shin Corp shares. Panthongtae and Thaksin's youngest daughter Pinthongtha bought shares from Ample Rich at 1 baht apiece that would be sold three days later to Temasek at 49baht).

Days before the deal, a legislative amendment lifting the permitted level of foreign ownership in Thai telecom companies was gazetted. Mysterious Singapore-controlled but nominally Thai-owned companies emerged with Shin Corp shareholdings to help Temasek keep just below the general 49 per cent foreign investment ceiling.

The families' sell-out was completed on the sharemarket to legally avoid capital gains tax. The Stock Exchange of Thailand pronounced itself generally satisfied with the peculiar way control changed in one of Thailand's most important companies. An investment arm of the Singapore Government had acquired a group of strategic Thai businesses stuffed with valuable government concessions, licences and preferential treatments.

It was his children's idea, Thaksin said blithely. They thought the sale would finally rid him of those conflict-of-interest smears.

"The kids would like their dad to devote himself completely to politics. The kids know their dad is working and they want Dad to do his best at work."

Unfortunately for Dad, the plan had come to fruition at a juncture when many Bangkokians were thinking they'd just about had a gutful of his high-handedness.

It was a further mistake for the Prime Minister to try to clear the air with a snap election that, in part because of the opposition parties' boycott, immediately became a referendum: Thaksin or "Thaksin get out". It detonated an explosion that blew Thaksin off his perch last Sunday.

The critical question now is whether a man with such a hunger for control can step back from public life when the rest of the apparatus of influence he constructed remains in place? Can those institutions that so blatantly failed to curb him during his prime ministership now reassert themselves?

The first test comes on April 19 with the election of a new Senate, which is supposed to be free of party or government interests and to protect the independence of statutory bodies such as the Constitutional Court and the NCCC.

The last Senate became so spineless that when one respected member accused another of offering a large bribe, the presiding officers refused even to investigate.

Kraisak, who has just finished his six-year Senate term, is glum. "Out of 200 people in the old Senate, maybe 40 were reliable and independent. From the nominations for this election, wives of politicians and the like, I would say next time it will be no more than 10per cent. Thaksin may resign, yes, but our work has only just started."

Titanic struggle to save democracy

Prem's casting of an advance ballot is symbolically significant but shouldn't be seen as discouraging

 No one says achieving fuller democracy is going to be easy. Thailand's political system appeared to be at its most volatile deadlock yesterday, and disturbance looks set to escalate. TV footage showing Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda casting an advance vote for the April 2 snap election all but eliminated chances of a royal intervention in the present political crisis, at least for the time being.

The highly controversial election, it seems, will go ahead despite lingering questions and looming uncertainties. It may be hard for the People's Alliance for Democracy to accept, but Prem was sending a message: the time is not right for a royally appointed prime minister, unless something really, really bad happens.

What's happening is already bad, but apparently the Privy Council, reported to have informed His Majesty the King of the PAD's petition for a royal appointee to lead Thailand temporarily through this turmoil, believes it is still within democracy's self-correcting mechanisms to straighten things out. An election, a fundamental process of democracy, is under way and there is no way any kind of interference, no matter how well intentioned, can escape serious scrutiny and criticism.

Most of all, ballot-box democracy is based on the one-man-one-vote principle. The PAD may have been equipped with all the voices that "matter", but Thaksin Shinawatra, somewhat ironically, is using one of democracy's key features to his best advantage. With continued strong backing from poor people, he managed to keep all opinion leaders in the land and the disillusioned middle class at bay. It's like he is saying: "If you think you are democratic, how can you ignore the voices of the likes of taxi motorcyclists and farmers who support me?"

The dilemma is highly complicated. Thaksin's charismatic appeal has changed a decades-old pattern of Thai politics: the grass roots elected governments, and the middle class overthrew them. But not this time - or at least not yet.

If the Privy Council has really decided against a royal intervention, which many experts believe is allowable under Article 7 of the Constitution, its move, though lamentable as far as the PAD is concerned, is understandable. What constitutes a "political crisis" that warrants invocation of Article 7? Corruption? Every government is corrupt, more or less. Dictatorship? Thaksin has just called a snap election.

Unfortunately, what Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has to say about this has not been widely publicised. At his party's rally at Sanam Luang on Friday, the young politician hit the nail on the head when he took pains to explain why trying to stop Thaksin is not stopping democracy. According to Abhisit, there are times when a man's power can outgrow the system, and that's what is happening in this Kingdom. Democracy, he insisted, is not just about elections, but also about good checks and balances, which have been all but wiped out by an elected leader.

Thais are facing a virtually unbreakable paradox. How can we salvage democracy if attempting to get rid of its alleged destroyer is perceived as rolling back the nation's democratic progress? It can be that complicated, or it can be this simple: Thaksin is not democracy. Abhisit points out that he's just a man who is rich, powerful and smart enough to exploit our fledgling but flawed system. Strong democratic principles and effective checks and balances would end Thaksin's career at the first scrutiny, when he was found to have stashed huge chunks of his assets in servants' and secret accounts and failed to report them to the anti-graft agency.

Looking at the bright side, the Privy Council, if it has made up its mind, is giving democracy one last chance to heal itself. After all, the system is not just about the election. The large numbers of people gathering around Government House yesterday and over the past few days are also an essential part of democracy. Maybe the uprising against Thaksin is a sign that "real" democracy is struggling to shake itself free from misrule and exploitation. All we can do is hope the process is not too violent or painful.

The whispered message

13 March 2006

At 8pm on Sunday night Thailand's TV Pool (which ensures that for state events all Thai tv networks carry the same footage simultaneously) broadcast His Majesty the King's mediation in the political turbulence of May 1992.

The program lasted for 8 minutes. The day after the 1992 meeting and broadcast the then Thai Prime Minister resigned.

On February 4 this year caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin suggested in his radio address to the nation that he would only step aside if HM King "whispered to me that it's time to go."

Was last night that whisper? Or was it a wish that tomorrow's major protest is carried out peacefully? Or indeed as Thaksin's supporters suggest, was it simply a request for all sides to seek mediation.

The TV Pool anchorman gave the strongest indication in his introduction when he said that the Royal audience from 1992 was being replayed with particular regard to the current political situation.

Polling woes

7 March 2006

The woes and confusion of this Thai political stalemate are all too evident in the conflicting interpretation of two ABAC polls at the weekend.

In the Bangkok Post the ABAC survey said quit.

In the Thai News Agency Abac survey there was strong support for Thaksin not to quit.

Polling in Thailand - write the story first; or make sure you ask the right question of the right people. In the end both polls are completely meaningless. Waht is amazing is that the same polling organisation can be manipulated to produce two totally different results at exactly the same time to suit whoever has commissioned them.

"Bangkokians want PM to quit in survey

Nearly half the people in greater Bangkok questioned in the latest Abac Poll survey want caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to resign to end the political stalemate.

The Abac Poll centre of the Assumption University surveyed 2,175 eligible voters in greater Bangkok yesterday and found that 48.2% wanted the prime minister's resignation to end the political turmoil, 35.5% wanted him to stay and 16.3% did not offer their views. Three other surveys in early February found 14-15% of the respondents wanted Mr Thaksin to quit. The percentage rose to 39.1% in a survey on March 1, and to 48.2% yesterday."

"Abac poll: Thaksin should stay

(TNA) - A new public opinion poll by the Abac Poll Centre provides strong support for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to resist calls to resign, and remain as leader of the Thai Rak Thai Party.

The poll, conducted on Saturday among 1,284 people 18 and over, in and around Bangkok, found 47.5% believed Mr Thaksin should not end his political career - while 28.9% said he should."

Get serious or leave now

Bangkok Post Editorial - 7 March 2006.

Thaksin must get serious. The country, and particularly Bangkok, paused for an anxious moment again on Sunday night and early yesterday. Yet another major demonstration was on, yet another late-night march, and with passions and tension running high. Once again, the tens of thousands of protesters demanding the political scalp of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra concluded a peaceful rally. But much of the credit has to go to the hard-working security agencies, in particular the police. They were out in force on Sunday, and all night as well, mostly unarmed and always assuring the safety of both the demonstrators and bystanders.

Unfortunately, professional performance by the police is not moving the political problem towards a solution. Premier Thaksin has taken to countering the huge rallies of his opponents with large crowds of his own.

Like all prime ministers of the past, as well as the dictators, Mr Thaksin and his supporters have been able to draw crowds of supporters, although many believe the numbers swell because people are paid to attend. That may be true, but it is already clear that the prime minister is not about to give in to the singular demand of his opponents and resign. In his Chiang Mai speech last Saturday, the premier rubbed it in. In the recent past, he claimed, prime ministers have given in to the demands of the mob, "But I won't."

That sort of brusque dismissal of his opponents is precisely what has landed Mr Thaksin and the nation in its current, terribly divisive state. In some five years in power, the premier has never considered the views of those who honestly disagree with him. Instead, he has waved away contrary thoughts and opinions. Those who voted for him would receive the rewards, the others could wait. He has become one of the worst dividers in the admittedly brief history of Thai democracy. Most politicians echo their constituents' calls for talks, negotiations, and a middle ground when one is available. For Mr Thaksin, every issue has been a matter of his way or no way.

The premier believes that by obeying the law, he can return to power. But even many of his strongest supporters in the provinces have openly questioned the confrontational approach. Mr Thaksin opened his election campaign at Sanam Luang last Friday _ technically, of course he was just communing with voters _ with some promises. Some were impressive. He will not serve unless he and his Thai Rak Thai party receive more than 50% of the vote on April 2. He is willing to delay the election. He begged the opposition to field candidates. He will begin a process of political reform and constitutional amendments, resign within a year and hold another election.

Seldom has talk been so cheap. Mr Thaksin's promises to the friendly Sanam Luang crowd are as full of air as any other trial balloon. For one thing, if he were to receive less than half the votes in the next election, he would have no authority to serve. But no one has been able to figure out just what political reforms he is committing to. Indeed, since the main defence of his current conduct is that he has acted legally in his share sale and dissolution of the Lower House, why would he support any changes to the law or the Constitution?

Mr Thaksin will receive little trust until he comes clean on this. It is one thing to make lightweight bombast to a cheering election rally. It is another to sit down with hard-talking academics, newsmen or a religious council and swear to follow an actual reform plan. But if Mr Thaksin wants respect and credibility, this is exactly what he must do.

The danger is that Mr Thaksin has lost too much respect to recover with a serious reform plan. His promise to appoint a committee is empty rhetoric. The begging for an end to the opposition's election boycott is just crocodile tears. The CEO owes his stakeholders a concrete plan, and he must back it up with a traditional Thai oath. The alternative seems to be continuous discord, with opponents calling for the head of a prime minister trying to bluster his way through a crisis.


Who will blink first?

Mar 2nd 2006 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition

Immovable prime minister meets implacable opposition
DETERMINED to cling to power despite a growing clamour for his resignation, Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has made a series of tactical retreats. First, in January, he sold his family's media and telecoms empire, Shin Corp, to a Singapore government agency, hoping to blunt the opposition's main line of attack—that he was abusing his powers to benefit his businesses. But when it emerged that the Thaksin clan had exploited legal loopholes to avoid tax on the $1.9 billion they raked in from the sale, the calls for him to go only got louder. So he called a snap general election for April 2nd—three years early—arguing that his critics were an unrepresentative bunch and that the Thai people as a whole should be his judge.

But his opponents are proving as implacable as Mr Thaksin is immovable. The three main opposition parties announced on February 27th that they would boycott the elections—which they would probably lose, given Mr Thaksin's continued support among poorer, rural Thais. A few hours later at a rally in central Bangkok, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a supposedly grassroots anti-Thaksin movement backed by business and political barons who have fallen out with the prime minister, issued an ultimatum: if Mr Thaksin did not quit altogether by Sunday (March 5th), it would step up its protests, a move that could lead to blood on the streets. Mr Thaksin countered by announcing a rally of his own supporters, to be held in Bangkok on Friday, heightening the danger of violence.

Mr Thaksin's position has been weakened, and PAD's strengthened, by the defection of the prime minister's former mentor, Chamlong Srimuang, an ascetic ex-general and Buddhist sect leader. He was one of the driving forces behind the bloody but ultimately successful 1992 popular uprising that brought down the then military government. He promises his “Dharma army” of monks and nuns will not start any trouble but his reassurances are not wholly reassuring. There has been talk of a possible military coup, but the commander of the armed forces insists that his men will remain neutral.

Any bloodshed—whoever starts it—may very well be blamed on Mr Thaksin. If so, it might make his downfall inevitable, just as street violence brought down the government in 1992 and, before that, in 1973. So, on February 28th, the prime minister gave ground once again. He said he was prepared to postpone the election if the three opposition parties wanted that; and he offered to discuss their demand that his Thai Rak Thai party sign a pact with them, pledging to create a “neutral” panel of experts to draft constitutional changes (the opposition has been vague on just what changes they want).

The opposition had used Mr Thaksin's initial refusal to sign such a pact as their excuse for boycotting the elections. However, Korn Chatikavanij, the deputy leader of the Democrats, the largest of the opposition parties, says the prime minister's change of mind has come too late and there is now nothing, short of Mr Thaksin's resignation, that would persuade them to call off the boycott. It is better, Mr Korn argues, to stay out of a political process that the prime minister has “corrupted and warped”.

Thai voters, and the outside world, may think rather that the boycott amounts to a dereliction of the opposition's duty to take part in the democratic process. If the election goes ahead, Mr Thaksin will gain an even bigger majority than he has now, and will have to contend only with the few tiny parties that are not joining the boycott. But Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst who notes that the opposition parties have enough money to fight only one election campaign, reckons they may be saving up for yet another election. This one might come soon, after the protesters have finally forced Mr Thaksin out. If the Democrats and their allies do eventually gain power, they can hardly complain if a time comes when violent, unrepresentative mobs one day try to force them out of office.

Thaksin cornered
Editorial - London Financial Times - Published: March 3 2006 02:00

Until less than a month ago, it seemed a fair bet that Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's embattled prime minister, would ride out the political storm over his and his family's financial dealings. That looks less certain now. Tactical misjudgments, sustained attack by a re-energised opposition and mounting popular anger have left him cornered and fighting for his political life.

The uproar is about far more than his family's failure to pay tax on the $1.9bn sale of its stake in the telecoms company he founded. The incident has ignited smouldering resentment at Mr Thaksin's style and methods of government, plunging the nation into political flux. Resolving the crisis is the biggest test yet for Thailand's young and still fragile democratic system.

The prime minister has sought to regain the initiative by calling a snap election. His opponents insist he must first accept constitutional reforms to make him more accountable. He has rejected the demands, prompting opposition parties to say they will boycott the polls - a step that, under Thai law, could invalidate the result.

The ethics of a boycott by parties that claim to stand for constitutional propriety are questionable. Their move also smacks of opportunism, because Mr Thaksin's rural support virtually guarantees his re-election. However, they have put him on the spot. For that, he ultimately bears much blame.

The charge against him is not that he gained power by unfair means, but has exercised it arrogantly and autocratically. He has used his electoral mandate, not to build consensus, but to impose authoritarian rule and to bludgeon opponents into submission. He has weakened the apparatus of the state by stacking supposedly independent institutions with yes-men and even placing senate members on retainers. Admittedly, in Thailand's cronyistic political culture, there have been many willing recruits. But a more enlightened leader would have sought to strengthen the country's frail institutions, rather than bend them to his own purposes.

Recent events should make it obvious, even to Mr Thaksin, that he must change course if he is to restore his political legitimacy. As a minimum, he should commit himself to implementing the opposition's main demands for constitutional amendments - particularly to subject him to proper parliamentary scrutiny and to require that key appointments to state bodies be made impartially.

Thailand also needs a leader with a different style, who recognises that, in properly functioning democracies, he has a responsibility to govern in the interests of all the people, not carte blanche to rule by personal whim. It is not yet clear whether a chastened Mr Thaksin can or will mend his ways - or whether another leader is required to do the job. But either way, the current deadlock must be broken swiftly. The country cannot afford, politically or economically, for it to drag on for long.

It's all over, Prime Minister Thaksin

Time for the super CEO to call it a day - for the sake of the company
The Nation - front page comment. 2 April 2006

This is not the time to debate whether you should have paid taxes. Or what you set up Ample Rich for. Or whether the election boycott is right or wrong. Or whether you have given the country more or less than what you have taken from her. We've gone way past such matters. With the nation on the brink of violent confrontation, this is the time to think, with a clear conscience and true patriotism, about what you should do next and now.

It's over, Mr Prime Minister. If you insist it is not, there will only be dire consequences, and not for any particular individual but our whole country. "Thak-sinomics" and Thailand have gone as far as they can. There are some good legacies after five years, but the fact that two major social forces are set to collide is the best testimony that your system does not suit the entire nation. You were a great CEO, so you should know better than anyone what should be done if a firm's employees are split and at each other's throat.

Yes, it's bottom-line time. A good CEO wouldn't dwell on which side he is on, but only how to save the company. And if the CEO knew it was him who caused the detrimental divide, what would he do? Should he persist on proving that he's right and set both camps on a war-path, and endanger the entire firm? Or should he make the biggest sacrifice by stepping aside and seeing how things go without him?

The nation is in turmoil, and this is totally because one group believes you are a liability, and the other thinks you are an asset. We don't need to list here who are on which side, but it's so obvious that those who are against you are not a one-dimensional movement driven by malicious political purposes. It consists of several social spheres which are unanimous, solid, sophisticated and believe they have good reasons to reject your rule. And until they see the end of your era these forces won't stop their campaign.

What will Thailand's CEO do? The bottom line is no longer his own survival. The country faces a serious threat of political violence that could severely hamper progress. Major policies are now in limbo because the other side does not trust you. Urgent reform is impossible while the other side considers you the root cause of the present political crisis. The economy will be held hostage by never-ending trouble.

It's time you made that ultimate sacrifice, the one every leader who loves his country is supposed to make. Never mind that you have been accused of thinking about yourself and serving just yourself. There's still time for you to show that you are a leader who really cares - and be remembered that way.

Thaksin is doomed, say diplomats
Daniel Ten Kate - ThaiDay Online
1 March 2006

It is highly unlikely that caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will reemerge as the country’s leader, foreign diplomats said yesterday, while acknowledging that the outcome of the political crisis was difficult to predict.

“I don’t see any exit strategy that enables Thaksin to continue as prime minister,” said a European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We understand the opposition’s right to boycott the election, as well as the prime minister’s view that he is playing by the rules. But, on a practical level, the crisis has passed the point of no return, and the general feeling is that the prime minister will have to leave soon.”

Though Thaksin’s position appears untenable, some foreign observers caution that predictions are useless as Thai politics always contains an element of surprise. Nonetheless, the conflict appears to have no obvious solution, and a prolonged debacle could further undermine the country’s fledging democratic institutions and deter investment in the country and the region.

“What’s happening now in two ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, Thailand and the Philippines, is not looking good for investment in the region as a whole,” an ASEAN diplomat said yesterday. “When investors look at Southeast Asia, they look at the entire region. They don’t make a distinction between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, so this could hurt all the ASEAN countries.”

While the conflict may be complicated, diplomats were quick to say that neither side was right or wrong. Thaksin has legitimate claims to being a democratically elected leader, while the opposition is within its rights to boycott the election.

“Thaksin is caught between a rock and a hard place,” a Western diplomat said. “On the face of it, going to the people for a mandate is not a terribly unattractive way to solve the problem. But then again, the new institutions are not working the way they were intended to under the 1997 Constitution. Even so, in the West it would probably require more substantive allegations to cause the fall of a government.”

Violence can never be ruled out, the diplomats said, but the possibility of it occuring is much less likely than a decade ago. Most of the speculation is because past crises have involved bloodshed, which is not necessarily a proper bellwether for the current stalemate.

If the election takes place in accordance with the Constitution, the international community will have to accept it. And as long as the opposition plays within the rules, the boycott is perfectly democratic.

As Thaksin’s current problems stem from his family’s 73.3-billion-baht sale of its Shin Corp stake to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, some diplomats fear that the conflict may result in anti-foreigner sentiment. At many of the rallies held by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, speakers have accused Thaksin of “selling off” the country to foreigners.

Moreover, as the crisis focuses so much on so-called ‘moral legitimacy’ and raises the prospect of palace intervention, some diplomats worry that a new wave of nationalism will sweep the country. Thais may reject comparisons with Western democratic systems and hail their own traditions under the country’s constitutional monarchy.

“The crisis may cause Thais to become nationalistic and introspective,” said a foreign diplomat. “With the concept of ‘moral legitimacy’ comes a certain concept of ‘Thainess,’ and they may tell foreigners to butt out by saying: ‘How dare you judge us?’ That attitude may prevail in the future.”

Or maybe two elections in 180 days

1 March 2006

The Nation newspaper is reporting that caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will announce on Friday that the new House would spend 180 days to amend the Constitution after which another snap election will be held.

A high-ranking source from the Thai Rak Thai Party told the Nation that Thaksin would make the announcement during the rally at Sanam Luang which the Thai Rak Thai would hold to show of support for the embattled prime minister.

"The prime minister will make it as a pre-poll promise to have the Constitution amended within 180 days after the election," the source said. "Then, he will dissolve the House and call a snap election under the rules of the amended Constitution. The announcement will be a social contract."

The question is how can it be a second snap election if you announce it 180 days in advanec

Yes - there will be a boycott

27 February 2006

This will be a very strange election - or there will be no election. Thailand's three main opposition parties will boycott a snap election called by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for April 2, and have refused to attend a meeting they demanded with the premier tonight.

While Thaksin had agreed to meet the leaders of Thailand's opposition Democrat, Chart Thai and Muan Chon parties tonight, he had indicated he would not sign an agreement to change the constitution as they had demanded.

Will opposition boycott election?

25 February 2006

The three Opposition parties failed on 25 February to agree unanimously on a proposal to boycott the April 2 snap election, but will hold another press conference to reveal their latest position after overnight talks.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a press briefing the parties will jointly discuss means and ways to counter what he branded the illegitimate House dissolution by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

House Dissolved: Thai Election set for 2 April 2006

24 February 2006

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced a House dissolution on Friday evening after being granted an audience with His Majesty the King.  Thaksin entered the Chitralada Palace at 5 pm to be granted the audience and left the palace shortly before 6 pm.

The prime minister then went to the Thai Rak Thai party head office and told reporters there that he had received a royal command to dissolve the House of Representatives.

The prime minister make the formal announcement of the House dissolution at 8.30pm on nationwide TV. What is telling is that Thaksin has felt the need to call an election at this time. Thaksin won a landslide majority at Thailand's general elections on 6 February 2005. Thaksin's party, Thai Rak Thai ('Thais Love Thais'), took 377 seats, nearly four-fifths of the seats in the House of Representatives. His working majority is huge and a vote of no confidence is a waste of breath.

Government House is reported as saying that Thaksin wants the snap election to be held as soon as possible on either on April 2 or April 9 (not April 1st as one wit has already suggested).

The snap election could be the most effective option for Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party to survive the current wave of opposition. Firstly no dissident TRT members will be able to elope to another party and stand for election with another party; the constitution requires 90 day membership of a political party before an election. So potential defectors will need to stay loyal to remain in parliament and in power

TRT is also likely to maintain and fund its strong support from voters in rural Thailand. Yet TRT may win no seats in Bangkok; which is the economic heart of Bangkok. It is a strange system where the government of the nation is not elected by the people who are at the heart of Thailand's economic growth.

What Thaksin will do is unclear. Will he remain as leader. Can he be a three term Prime Minister. He is already Thailand's first two term Prime Minister.

Thaksin had yesterday rejected a rumour he would dissolve the House of Representatives and call a snap election by May. 24 hours is a long time in politics.

Most importantly of all; the bars will all be closed the night before and the night of election day so that we may all vote wisely and soberly!



A supporter of the boycott said: "We should not legitimise the House dissolution and the April 2 snap election. They believe a boycott of the election is the only choice."

"I believe there will be no election on April 2 as the people will not allow Thaksin to remain as caretaker prime minister,"  Mahachon Party leader Sanan Kachornprasart

“I don’t see any exit strategy that enables Thaksin to continue as prime minister,” said a European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar is protesting for the government to hold elections, but in our country, we are open for elections but they don't want to run," Thaksin told reporters.

"I am ready to sign the decree if the situation becomes violent," Thaksin told reporters during a campaign stop in Ubon.

Former governor of Bangkok and leader of a "Dharma Army" of barefoot Buddhists opposed to Thaksin
The people hoped Thaksin would lead our country in the right way and solve our problems. And in his first three years as Prime Minister he did very well. But in the last two years, he hasn't been the same. I have decided that it's no good for him to be in this position [of Prime Minister]. It's not only I, but the educated people around the country. Thaksin has been cleared of any legal wrongdoing regarding the sale of his family's Shin Corp. But that's not enough for the man who is Prime Minister. We have to abide by ethics. That's much more important than law and regulations. If Thaksin were a normal man and not the Prime Minister, that's okay, but he's the leader of this country. Thaksin has to resign.

Emerging-markets expert and publisher of the monthly investment newsletter The Gloom, Boom & Doom Report
Thaksin has the support of the rural population, but the urban population in Bangkok is strongly opposed to him, especially the intellectuals. They argue that he is buying votes in the countryside, which is to some extent true. Voters in the countryside are shipped to rallies in buses and given free food. But this isn't something unique to Thailand or Thaksin by any means. It is the dark side of democracy. Many other politicians all over the world do the same thing.

Thaksin did not have to pay income tax on the Shin Corp. sale. It's not illegal, but it's not particularly ethical. As one of the richest men in the country and its top politician, he doesn't exactly show a good moral example to the business community or the country. If he had just paid the tax, none of this probably would have happened. It's a matter of, say, paying $200 million, which is not the end of the world when you are getting over a billion.

Even if this drags on for some time, I don't think it will be a very negative factor for foreign investment. If someone wants to build a factory or buy some shares in Thailand, I don't think they are going to care about this deadlock. There are a number of ways it could end. Thaksin could simply ride this out. Or the army could step in at some point and force him out. Or the King could ask him to resign. But if he is forced out, the problem in Thailand is the same as in many countries where there is a strong leader: who can do a better job? I don't think there is anyone in the opposition who could. The tragedy of Thaksin is that he could have been a very good leader but he bungled it because of his greed and arrogance.

Novelist, screenwriter and columnist
I don't like Thaksin and agree that he should resign. But now it's become complicated because I don't like his rivals. Each side has its own agenda. If Thaksin steps down, everything will be more relaxed. But he's so stubborn and self-righteous that he's probably not going to step down. It's getting tiresome.

In Bangkok people are divided into three groups. The first is anti-Thaksin, the second supports the government, and the third consists of people who are just bored and fed up with the situation and want it to go away. I don't approve of the government and the way it's running the country. But it's also difficult to support or agree with the street protesters. The issues they raise against the government aren't credible. They're just trying to get people angry and win support. It's not really democracy at all on the streets. They're not really offering a solution or saying what could be done better. They are just trying to get Thaksin out.

Before this crisis, very few people were openly antigovernment. Now many are, because they think they should be. Lots of people are taking sides, not really knowing what it's about, or how to actually solve anything. Some people go the rallies to be "part of history," or to meet friends, take photos. It's become theater.







2 Bangkok.com