The Political Weather in Bangkok

Bangkok Reporting

The latest on the political crisis in Thailand, from our Bangkok correspondent. H. Numan.

The political weather in Bangkok
by H. Numan

…is expected to be hot and humid over the weekend. Followed by a cooling down of emotions. What has happened? On 26 February the ex-prime minister of Thailand, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra was convicted for acquiring “unusual wealth” during this term of government.

The verdict was the seizure of no less than 76 billion baht of his assets. That’s right: about 2.75 billion US dollars. One might say he has been taken to the cleaners and picked dry. Don’t worry. He’s got plenty left over. These were the assets the Thai government could legally put on hold. Not very surprisingly, Mr. Thaksin is somewhat miffed.

Of course he never masterminded the failed Red Shirt revolution last year. That was another “honest mistake*”, see. He never wanted anything but justice. To get back the few billion he made as prime minister. That’s all. Now the Red Shirts are up in arms to get it for him once again. This coming weekend is going to be rough, though. The Pua Thai Party (followers of Thaksin, dressed in red shirts) announced they will march in Bangkok with a million people. I highly doubt they can manage the logistics for that many people. But getting 100,000 people on the street is quite a statement on its own.

The last two major events (occupation of the international airport by the Yellow Shirts and the failed coup attempt by the Red Shirts last April) cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenue and prestige. I’m pretty sure the government isn’t interested in something like that again. Nor does it seem that the government will allow it.

The major roads into Bangkok and the major intersections are under firm police and army control. Both police and army stand behind the government. There is very little chance the Red Shirts will unexpectedly get support from military leaders. The few officers who thought their rice was flavored by Thaksin are currently in military prisons, awaiting trial. Not for being Thaksin supporters, mind you. That is perfectly legal. But for inciting mutiny and publicly calling for riots.

I expect we will see some demonstrations, maybe minor rioting, but nothing more than that. Several reasons: it’s easy to arouse dirt-poor peasants. That’s were the support of Thaksin comes from. They still believe in him, because he gave them a few baht when nobody else would.

But that is not enough. The proverb here goes: “The PM gets elected in the countryside, but kicked out in Bangkok.” In other words: nearly all Thai prime ministers get elected on a rural vote. But if they forget the citizens of Bangkok, they inevitably get the boot. As Thaksin found out to his grief.
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Thailand is a young developing democracy. The police and the army are major political forces here. Both stand firmly behind the present government. Another very important force is the crown and the establishment. They especially dislike Thaksin very much. They support the government as well.

Bangkok itself never liked Thaksin. That is a reason why he was ousted in the first place.

Of course Thaksin has to do something, and do it right now. If he doesn’t, he loses the little face he has left. But frankly, I don’t think there is much else that he can do than cause immense damage to the country by staging a failed coup once again.

In all fairness, I have to state a few points: Mr. Thaksin never got elected himself. He was appointed by his party. His party won several major electoral victories, but he himself was never personally elected. His party is indeed the biggest party in Thailand by a big margin, true enough. But given his enormous wealth before he ran for prime minister, I would have been surprised if it hadn’t.

Imagine Bill Gates buying both the Democrat and Republican Parties in the USA. Telling his marketing and advertising departments to manage the campaign with an unlimited budget. Would you be surprised Bill managed to become president that way?

In Thailand politics are focused on faces, much less on party ideals or ideology. That makes Thai politics very fluid. Today parties are enemies. Tomorrow they are friends. The day after tomorrow they aren’t friends anymore. What Thaksin effectively did was to buy each and every political party except for the Democrat Party. And thus killed off a fledgling democracy.

The Democrat Party (don’t confuse it with US Democrats — they aren’t!) is moderately popular. It always was popular in Bangkok and the South of Thailand. The TRT party rests on support from the poor northeastern provinces.

The current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has the unenviable task of trying to ease the tensions. So far he has done reasonably well. Abhisit was elected with a big majority in two Bangkok electoral districts. There at least he beat Thaksin true and fair.

So, for those of you planning on a holiday here: don’t worry too much over possible problems. It’s highly unlikely the airport will be occupied again. Demonstrations are far away from the popular tourist attractions. Don’t engage in debates with pro- or anti-Thaksin partisans. You don’t know about the situation and you don’t speak Thai anyway.

This was Bangkok reporting,
H. Numan.

* honest mistake: While still PM, Thaksin was asked by parliament why his maid suddenly had 10 billion baht worth of shares in his company. His reply: “That was an honest mistake. Anybody owning many billions can make it. I gave my maid 10 billion baht and completely forgot about it.”

Note: Now that readers know a little more about the situation in Thailand, they may enjoy this little game featuring Thaksin Shinawatra’s finances.

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