This post is the latest in a series from our Bangkok correspondent, H. Numan.
Troubles in the Land of Smiles
by H. Numan
In 1997 we had the economic crash. Thailand went bankrupt. Taksin took over and vowed to make the country solvent in record time. Let’s be honest: he certainly did that. In record time Thailand was able to pay off its debts to the IMF and get back into black figures again. But it came at a very high price.
Taksin is one of the wealthiest people in Asia. He set up his political party, the TRT or Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thailand party), which was run like a business conglomerate. Himself as the CEO at the top, practically invulnerable from criticism. That created a bit of a problem. Political parties are not business conglomerates and their leadership should be wide open to criticism. That is the fundamental difference between a business and a democratic party.
Also, Taksin didn’t help Thailand for free. He made huge profits because it’s kind of difficult to negotiate a monopoly if there is only one person involved in the negotiations: Prime Minister Taksin sitting on one end of the table, running to the other side being the Chief Executive Officer of Shinawatra Telecom. One might assume a conflict of interests.
Anyway, the monopoly on wireless communication sailed smoothly through political waters, thanks to the understanding between the prime minister Taksin and the chief executive officer Taksin involved in the negotiations. As prime minister one has certain inside information about currency fluctuations, if he is not outright able to set the currency rate most profitable for himself.
What is an excellent way of solving a business problem (if you can afford it)? You throw money at it. Taksin had a lot of money to spent, the best advertising agencies are his, and mergers or hostile takeovers are kid stuff for him. Again, in record time the TRT became the biggest political party, and the first in the history of Thailand to hold an absolute majority (+75%) in parliament.
This is more or less acceptable in Asian countries but Taksin got into serious trouble when he sold Shinawatra Telecom to Singapore. To top it off: he boasted that he didn’t have to pay a single satang (cent) of tax on it. That was too much, even for the man on the street. Thais are very nationalistic, and always worry about “foreigners stealing our country”. Hence it is not possible to own a business as a foreigner nor buy land or even a condominium without serious restrictions. Everybody, including the foreigners, can accept that. But quite understandably the Thais got furious about this transaction. “Why do we worry about foreigners? Taksin is doing a much bigger deal of selling our national assets!”
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This is a common proverb in Thailand: the country folks elect the government, but Bangkok sends that government back home. Which is exactly what happened and what is happening right now. Rural folks supported Taksin, but demonstrations and public unrest, mainly in Bangkok, send him into exile.
Hence, the Silk Revolution. Tanks rolled over the street in the dead of night and the army took over the country. Taksin was in New York addressing the United Nations, and was asked not to come back for the time being. Not a shot was fired. At two o’clock in the dead of night tanks stopped correctly for a red light, waiting for it to turn green. Rarely was a coup more concerned about the rules of the road.
The military government acted as caretaker. They didn’t do much, apart from writing a new constitution, our 24th. The TRT was dissolved. Last year they held elections and stepped back. A new government was elected, headed by Mr. Samak, leader of the PPP (People’s Power Party) party.
Since this is Thailand, the dissolved TRT reappeared as the PPP. Prime minister Samak Sundaravej went to work, rewriting the constitution so an unnamed exile might be able to return and become prime minister. It is widely assumed that Samak is nothing but a sock puppet for Taksin. Even the staunchest supporter of Taksin has to admit this. Samak had no problem having Taksin and his family return to Thailand. Where Taksin shed a few crocodile tears and announced he would never enter politics again, unless the people demand it…
That is where our current crop of troubles began. The PAD, People’s Alliance for Democracy, whose actions exiled Taksin, wasn’t particularly happy to see Taksin preparing himself for a new run as PM. The powers that be —the Crown and the established families — weren’t exactly happy either.
So, Taksin was taken to court for fraud and embezzlement. His wife was convicted, and his own conviction is just a matter of time. Taksin asked permission to attend the Olympic Games in Beijing. Which was granted, provided he promised to come back to Thailand. Of course the Taksin family didn’t. They attended the Olympics and flew to London where they applied for political asylum.
That is a bit of a bummer for the government, to say the very least. As well as a kind of gift-wrapped present for the PAD. Samak is a lot of things, but being subtle isn’t amongst his virtues. He is very able to ruffle the few feathers others forgot to ruffle. Not a wise thing to do in a society where ruffling feathers just isn’t done.
What’s happening today
What is happening now is that practically everybody one way or another is trying to make Samak understand that it might be a very good idea for him to retire to greener pastures. In Japan for example (The usual place for failed Thai politicians to retire to). Or maybe in Nebraska. What about Norway? They have excellent green pastures there too. We have the electricity, water and phone companies (government enterprises) blocking deliveries to the government, parliament, police stations and private homes of members of the government, for thus far it does not involve the public. Flights of Thai International are intentionally delayed. The bus company runs non-air-conditioned buses for free, and offers free-of-charge shuttles to places where the PAD is demonstrating. The PAD occupies the grounds of the Prime Minister’s office.
Samak thought to pull out his ace by declaring a state of emergency. That completely backfired, since the military isn’t exactly keen to support him, and is not at all visible in any way on the streets.
What will happen next is anyone’s guess. The legacy of Taksin is that the government kind of likes the idea of running a democratic dictatorship. That is what you normally get if the ruling party occupies a +75% majority in parliament. Thailand is a young democracy. Being Asian, it has “different ways” to express opposition. As is happening right now.
The military is a very important source of power. The crown is also a very important source of power (albeit usually indirect). Big business can be a source of power. But not a stable one, as Taksin discovered.
It seems very likely Samak will have to resign. He plans, as Taksin did, to fly to New York and address the United Nations. I would be highly surprised if a Silk Revolution part II doesn’t occur if he leaves the country. Thailand has had a lot more coups than democratic elections, and usually they are without bloodshed. Or only by the people directly involved. Exceptions do happen, but generally the army/navy/air force (each is a source of power on its own) moves in, is visible in the streets, the last government flees the country and a new one is appointed to write a new constitution.
For those who plan to visit Thailand:
Don’t let it spoil your holidays. Thailand is a big country, and Bangkok is a very big city. The action happens in a tiny part of Bangkok. Nowhere else. If you do not visit the Dusit area (which is where the major government offices and the King’s residence are located) you probably won’t notice at all that a coup is underway. The only sad part is that you can’t visit Dusit Zoo…
Thailand is perfectly save to visit, and I sincerely recommend that. Just stay away from the governmental center of Bangkok (Dusit), don’t try to discuss politics and you’ll do just fine. Actually, it’ll give you something to tell the folks back home about! How many of your friends can honestly say they went through a coup d’état?
For those staying at home:
This was Bangkok reporting,