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Thai Con

The world had barely begun to grasp the magnitude of the tsunami on December 26 when Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's prime minister, dashed to the island of Phuket to survey the damage and meet local officials. By the next day, Thailand's six TV channels were broadcasting constant images of Thaksin comforting distraught residents of a Thai fishing village battered by the wave. In one clip—which aired repeatedly—Thaksin walked through the wreckage, his arm wrapped protectively around the shoulders of elderly villagers as a young woman ran toward them, arms outstretched, for a hug. “Thaksin looked like a god,” said one Thai viewer who is normally critical of the premier.

Since then, the charismatic, pseudo-autocratic prime minister has made four more trips to Thailand's disaster zone, followed on each foray by journalists from the country's essentially docile TV channels. In fact, Thai TV stations, controlled by the state, have made the prime minister's daily activities the staple of their news for the last four years. In the tsunami's aftermath, Thais watched as their leader visited wrecked five-star hotels on the mainland resort of Khao Lak; a relief camp for 4,000 displaced villagers; the beaches of Phuket; and a local Buddhist temple, where Thai and foreign forensic experts are working to identify thousands of victims' bodies.

The trips were not mere photo opportunities. Thaksin, the founder of Thailand's largest telecommunications empire, has spent four years micromanaging the country, and, over the last few weeks, he has taken a personal interest in the nitty-gritty relief and reconstruction efforts. On his visits to affected areas, he has galvanized Thailand's sluggish bureaucrats by setting deadlines to find the bodies of all the victims, clear up wreckage and debris, and construct temporary shelters for the estimated 30,000 Thais who have lost their homes.

As a result of his energetic, well-publicized crisismanagement efforts, Thaksin is now reaping a political windfall from Thailand's tragedy. Thais are rallying behind him in much the same way the U.S. public united behind President Bush in the immediate aftermath of September 11. For the premier, the timing couldn't be better. Images of the tsunami, and his response, are obscuring his crisisridden year just in time for national elections on February 6. Unfortunately, Thaksin's almost-guaranteed success will hardly be a victory for Thai democracy.

THAKSIN, ONE OF the rare Thai businessmen who suffered no serious losses from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, won election in 2001 by persuading Thai voters that his business acumen could return prosperity to the battered nation. And, indeed, many Thais initially came to see their leader as something of a superman. He presided over an economic rebound fueled by surging consumer spending and robust exports, and an aggressive crackdown on drugs went over well with many Thais eager to eradicate the scourge. By the end of 2003, Thaksin was vowing to eradicate poverty, a pledge accompanied by TV ads hinting at a prime-ministerial messiah complex. In the commercials, rural villagers listened to a radio as Thaksin's familiar voice rattled off a list of government initiatives to help the poor. Then, in the ads, a village woman asked her friends about her outstanding debts, and, from the radio, Thaksin replied, “We can solve your debt problems, too.”

But his inflated self-image had a downside. Thaksin's concentration of all power into his own hands was debilitating for Thai democracy. Thaksin forced independent-minded bureaucrats out of power, often replacing them with people loyal only to him. His family bought into the most independent television station, cutting off many critical voices, and the massive advertising budgets of state agencies were used to rein in other media outlets. The war on drugs, in which thousands of people—including many innocent civilians—were killed, silenced many Thai human rights activists and other leaders of civil society who feared they would be targeted by security forces if they spoke out against Thaksin. Thai officials became used to waiting for instructions from on high rather than taking initiative, which would have landed them in trouble with the notoriously hot-tempered top boss. Members of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party were said to quake at the prospect of delivering bad news to Thaksin.

In crises, too, the premier's unwillingness to heed other voices—and his devotion to business at all costs—sometimes backfired. Last January, news broke that Thailand's vast poultry stocks were afflicted with a form of lethal bird flu. Amid evidence that birds had been dying for months, Thaksin ultimately admitted that Bangkok had suspected the outbreak, but that officials had kept quiet about it for weeks. There were furious allegations of a deliberate cover-up to protect Thailand's billion-dollar chicken industry, dominated by the powerful Charoen Pokphand (C.P.) group. Suspicions were reinforced by the fact that Wattana Muangsook, the son-in-law of C.P.'s founder, was Thaksin's commerce minister. Twelve Thais subsequently died of the ailment.

Thaksin's economic agenda also suffered setbacks this year, again partly due to his domineering style and to perceptions that he was too close to big business. Thaksin, who tends to steamroll all critics, was forced to back down from a plan to sell off shares in the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand after intense protests from the company's 30,000 employees. Then, Krung Thai Bank, which had fulfilled the premier's mandate to aggressively push out new loans to kick-start the economy, was forced to reclassify $1.1 billion in lending as bad loans after the central bank questioned the viability of projects they were financing. The head of Krung Thai, Thaksin's longtime business friend, was forced by the central bank to step down.

All this led some Thais to doubt Thaksin, though it was always likely he would win the February election, in part because the opposition party, the Democrats, had almost no coherent platform. Still, many hoped that the Democrats and another opposition group, the Mahachon Party, would take enough seats to be able to censure Thaksin in parliament and limit his authoritarian nature.

But the tsunami has swept away memories of the last year's difficulties. The disaster gives Thaksin a chance once again to display the can-do dynamism that first enthralled Thai voters four years ago. Just before its term expired this month, Thaksin's government quickly approved an emergency relief and reconstruction fund worth more than $700 million, while the central bank decided to make another $700 million available to commercial banks for low- interest loans to businessmen hit by the wave. “[The tsunami] has played into Thaksin's hand,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a lecturer of international relations at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “He was able to mobilize the state machinery quickly and effectively.” Opposition groups are reluctant to criticize the public relief effort, while any complaints of survivors have hardly resonated in the public debate. “The Thai people would give the benefit of the doubt—and a lot of support—to any government of the day in such a calamitous situation," says Thittinan.

Thaksin has taken advantage of this fact. In the first days after the tsunami, some nongovernmental organizations and some villagers in the affected areas called for the February election to be postponed, saying it would be inappropriate to go ahead with the vote at this time. But Thaksin made no effort to change the date, and the elections will proceed as scheduled.

NOW, THAKSIN'S PARTY appears poised for an unprecedented landslide. “Like him or hate him, [his] star is shining," Veera Prateepchaikul, deputy editor-in- chief of Post Publishing Company, a local publishing consortium, noted. “Ask the man on the street how he feels about the government's performance in dealing with the tsunami aftermath and the likely answer will be a big thumbs-up.” Indeed, an independent poll last week of 1,200 Thais found that 54 percent have a better impression of Thaksin now than they did before the waves hit, and analysts now predict Thai Rak Thai will win at least 400 of the parliament's 500 seats.

While many average Thais may celebrate their take-charge leader's victory, prospects of a Thai Rak Thai landslide worry social activists and intellectuals, who fear the impact of another four years of Thaksin on Thailand's young and fragile democracy, which developed only after the most recent military coup in the early '90s. A reformist 1997 constitution was supposed to lay the foundations for a stable democracy with protections for the civil liberties that had been trampled during previous military regimes. But Thaksin has made no secret of his view that democracy is merely a means—“a tool," he has called it—to whatever ends he is working for, and he has rolled back many of the gains of the 1997 constitution. Under Thaksin's tenure, Thais are once again confronting measures—control of the media, the abduction or murder of dissenters, unpunished abuses by security forces—from the playbook of Thailand's dictatorial past.

If he wins the landslide victory, Thaksin will emerge with heightened confidence that could embolden him to take even harsher measures against dissenters. Chaiwat Sathaanand, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University, believes Thailand is emerging as an “authoritarian democracy” similar to neighboring Singapore or Malaysia, where the government sacrifices citizens' rights and uses violence to crush resistance, all in the name of combating communal threats. “It is not accidental that he is very fond of declaring war: war on poverty, war on drugs," Chaiwat said of Thaksin. “He realizes that it makes him shine as a leader. It is an indicator of things to come.”

Amy Kazmin covers Southeast Asia for The Financial Times. This article appeared in the January 24, 2005, issue of the magazine.