Thaksin and Absolute Power

Absolute power - 10:13, March 24, 2002

Interesting Washington Post article with a relatively balanced overview of Thaksin's term so far: Critics fear that Thaksin is trying fashion himself into a leader like Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad or Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom enjoyed near-absolute control of their legislatures and imposed strict controls on the media but are credited with spurring rapid economic development....

Since taking office, he has followed through on many of his promises, declaring a limited moratorium on farmers' debts, doling out millions of baht to villages and introducing universal medical care for just 30 baht, or 70 cents, per consultation. His spending programs have made him a hero to the rural poor who make up a majority of the population. But the programs have been less popular among the urban elite, particularly journalists, academics and opposition leaders who live in Bangkok. They assert that the country can ill afford to make such large grants to every village, and they contend that lower medical fees have led to worse care.

...After a polling organization reported that his numbers were slipping, authorities raided the firm's office, seizing confidential survey forms and warning that they might censor future questions. After the Far Eastern Economic Review published a short article alleging tensions between Thaksin and the country's king, the police ordered that the magazine's two Bangkok correspondents be expelled. And after printing highly critical articles about the prime minister, several newspaper editors and executives discovered their bank accounts were being investigated by the country's Anti-Money Laundering Office.


The original link is broken. This article uses some of the same quotes from the Post article: Opponents Say Thaksin Is Trying to Drown Out Criticism

[2015 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from the early days of the Thai internet, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

BANGKOK -- Most Thai politicians would have been content to be in Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's position 13 months ago. His political party had just taken control of parliament after a resounding victory at the polls. Television reports fawned over him, newspaper headlines were almost always favorable and opinion surveys pegged his approval rating at more than 70 percent.

But Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, was not satisfied.

He set about extending his dominance of parliament by adding three smaller parties to his ruling coalition, giving him an unprecedented two-thirds majority in the lower house that allows him to amend the constitution at will and block any attempts to censure him. He sought to wipe out what little negative news was reported about him by imposing greater controls on government-controlled broadcasters and asking at least one newspaper to scrap a popular column that regularly criticized his administration.

In recent weeks the government's efforts to muzzle unflattering coverage have become even more intense, leading to howls of protest from media organizations and prompting opposition leaders to criticize Thaksin as thin-skinned.

After a polling organization reported that his numbers were slipping, authorities raided the firm's office, seizing confidential survey forms and warning that they might censor future questions. After the Far Eastern Economic Review published a short article alleging tensions between Thaksin and the country's king, the police ordered that the magazine's two Bangkok correspondents be expelled. And after printing highly critical articles about the prime minister, several newspaper editors and executives discovered their bank accounts were being investigated by the country's Anti-Money Laundering Office.

"He'll stop at nothing," said Pana Janviroj, editor of the Nation, one of the newspapers whose employees were targeted by the money-laundering office. "He believes everyone should be on his side, and he doesn't believe dissent should be tolerated."

Opposition leaders contend that efforts to muffle criticism raise concerns about his drive to consolidate power. They fear that Thaksin, who remains popular with the public despite the media-related controversies, could use his new clout in parliament to reshape the country's political landscape and roll back reforms enshrined in a 1997 democracy-promoting constitution.

"He has absolute power now," said Akapol Sorasuchat, a senior member of the Democrat party, which lost control of the government last year to Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party. "Our biggest concern is that he listens to no one -- not to [the] private sector, not to the media, not to the academics."

Thaksin's advisers insist that his dealings with the press and parliament have been misunderstood and blown out of proportion. They contend that Thaksin, 52, a former police officer who founded Thailand's largest telecommunications company, has simply brought his private-sector style to the prime minister's office in an effort to unclog a gridlocked political system.

"When he works, he thinks more in terms of efficiency, in terms of getting things done," said Suranad Vejjajiva, one of Thaksin's senior advisers. "He's trying to say, 'Don't criticize me yet. Let me finish my work.' But some members of the media are not giving him a chance. And he finds that frustrating because he comes from a world where there was not as much criticism."

Thaksin has insisted that he had nothing to do with the money-laundering investigation or the effort to expel the two Review correspondents. Earlier this week, a special government committee chaired by Thaksin's cabinet secretary concluded that two officials from the money-laundering office were responsible for launching the probe.

"It shocked me when I learned that such a thing had happened," Thaksin said this week.

But media executives, opposition figures and many political analysts find that hard to believe. "It's inconceivable that they would have done it without high-level encouragement," said Pana, the Nation editor. "In Thailand, mid-level bureaucrats don't do this sort of thing without orders from the top."

The case, which has dominated the news here for the past two weeks, has turned into a major political embarrassment for Thaksin. "His media coverage today would be a lot more positive if he had not gone around trying to control the media," said Sunai Phasuk, a political science lecturer at Thamassat University in Bangkok.

"He misread his mandate," Sunai said. "He thought it meant he could do whatever he wants."

Even with the controversy, Thaksin has made contradictory statements about whether he intends to allow Thailand to maintain one of the freest media environments in Asia. This week he insisted he was not "against press freedom at all," but he also has warned the media to be cautious and not "to scold others."

Critics fear that Thaksin is trying fashion himself into a leader like Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad or Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom enjoyed near-absolute control of their legislatures and imposed strict controls on the media but are credited with spurring rapid economic development.

"He seems to want to establish a parliamentary dictatorship like what happened in Singapore and Malaysia," said Somchai Homlaor, the director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development. "But how many of our freedoms -- press freedoms, academic freedoms, our civil society -- will be lost if he does that?"

Although he is reported to be worth as much as $2 billion, Thaksin ran for office on a populist platform. Thai Rak Thai, his party, translates as "Thais Love Thais."

With the nation's economy still feeling the effects of a region-wide financial crisis that struck four years ago, he accused his predecessors of being too deferential to foreign investors and of adopting economic policies that neglected the rural poor. He pledged to give 1 million baht, or $22,600, to each of Thailand's 70,000 villages, and he vowed to fight drugs and corruption more aggressively.

Since taking office, he has followed through on many of his promises, declaring a limited moratorium on farmers' debts, doling out millions of baht to villages and introducing universal medical care for just 30 baht, or 70 cents, per consultation.

His spending programs have made him a hero to the rural poor who make up a majority of the population. But the programs have been less popular among the urban elite, particularly journalists, academics and opposition leaders who live in Bangkok. They assert that the country can ill afford to make such large grants to every village, and they contend that lower medical fees have led to worse care.

Questions about conflicts of interest have arisen because of Thaksin's large business holdings, most of which have been transferred to his son. Opposition politicians said a cabinet decision to limit foreign investment in the telecommunications sector provided a huge benefit to his company, as did several lucrative government contracts that were awarded to an advertising company in which his family holds a stake. Thaksin has repeatedly denied any conflict of interest.

Media executives also have accused him of steering his company's advertising away from newspapers he deems critical of him.

Before the election, the National Counter-Corruption Commission charged Thaksin with failing to fully disclose his assets while he served in a previous administration. The Constitutional Court acquitted him in August. Critics contend Thaksin strong-armed some of the judges, but no one has presented evidence to support those claims.

Suranad, the senior adviser, said Thaksin's policy decisions have "benefited the country more than his personal interests." But Suranad acknowledged that Thaksin "needs to explain himself more clearly."

Even the country's beloved king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, a constitutional monarch who assiduously avoids interfering in politics, has chided Thaksin for failing to listen to criticism while "the country is in a state of disaster instead of prosperity."

"Everyone," the king said in his birthday address in December, "needs to lower his ego."
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