By B. Raman
Rural Thailand has struck back in the general elections held on July 3, 2011. And with what vehemence!
Since 2006, it was deprived of the leadership of its favourite son Thaksin Shinawatra, a Thai of Chinese origin, whose family belonged to Chiangmai in Northern Thailand. A cop turned businessman turned politician, he sought to change the face of Bangkok and Thailand after his election victory in 2001, which brought him to power as the Prime Minister. He was his own man and not the creation of Bangkok.
He sought to root out the bad reputation of Bangkok as the sex capital of Asia. On his orders, the unauthorised night clubs which had mushroomed all over Bangkok were demolished by the municipal authorities. They drove the prostitutes and sex girls away from the lanes and bye-lanes of Bangkok.
He reduced bureaucracy and red-tapism and made the Government friendly to the man in the street and to the rural poor. No Thai leader had ever paid more attention to the problems of the rural poor than Thaksin. He was easily accessible to them.
Despite being the son of the rural soil, he realised that Thai prosperity depended on the prosperity of Bangkok. He gave Bangkok a modern international airport and a rapid transit system of which it can be proud.
Having been a telecommunication tycoon who had earned his billions in the telecommunications industry, he improved communications and connectivity.
But also, unfortunately, he broke rules with abandon —not only in national interest, but also in the interest of his own business and that of his family and cronies. Being from the rural areas, he was seen as irreverent to the royal family and the ruling aristocracy.
All those in Bangkok — the privy councillors, senior officers of the Armed Forces and the civilian bureaucracy, the businessmen, the sex traders and others — who felt spurned, scorned, ignored and deprived of their illegal sources of income by him—- joined hands together under the leadership of the Army and had him overthrown in a military coup in September 2006 when he was away to New York to attend a session of the UN General Assembly.
Since then, he has been in political wilderness flying from country to country seeking political asylum— living mostly in Dubai, but keeping in touch with his family, party colleagues and the leaders and people of rural Thailand and guiding them politically.
His rural support base remained intact. It was not affected by the harassment of his family members by those who had overthrown him. Nor was it affected by the corruption cases instituted against him by his successors. They could drive him out of Thailand, but they could not drive him out of the hearts of the rural people for whom he cared. His party survived repeated attempts to ban it by changing its name after each ban.
As the general elections approached on July 3, it became apparent that his supporters now operating under the name Pheu Thai meaning For Thai, could not be kept out of power. Their victory — now under the leadership of Thaksin’s dynamic businesswoman younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is 44 years old — was widely anticipated by the local political analysts. Even Thaksin’s political opponents — the leaders of the Democrats Party headed by the outgoing Prime Minister Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva — were reconciled to Thaksin’s supporters staging a come-back in the elections — but as the leader of a coalition with the largest number of seats in the Parliament without an absolute majority of its own.
Their calculations have proved wrong. The Pheu Thai has emerged with an absolute majority of its own—winning 265 of the total of 500 seats. Its spectacular victory has been grudgingly accepted by the Bangkok elite. It had no other option. Even the Army has assured that there will be no more coups and that it will not again intervene in the politics of the country.
It will be churlish to deny Yingluck the credit for the spectacular victory. She and her advisers in the Party — many of them hand-picked and remote-controlled by her brother from Dubai — fought a vigorous campaign. The organisational skills, which have brought them back to power, were theirs, but the populist ideas — such as the promise to supply free Tablet PCs to about one million new school children and to raise the minimum wage by 40 per cent to 300 bahts ($9.70) per day — which motivated their election campaign were Thaksin’s. Yingluck, a post-graduate from the Kentucky State University of the US, and her party could not have won in the manner they did but for the love and affection still enjoyed by her brother among the rural people.
She will be the de jure Prime Minister of Thailand. She has already announced that she will head a coalition with the support of four other smaller parties, which had remained loyal to her party.
But will she be the de facto Prime Minister? If so, for how long? Will she be driven from the back-seat by her brother? Will he make her withdraw the corruption proceedings against him to enable him to return to power? If he did and if he returned to the country to exercise his political influence de facto once again without any de jure role, will the Bangkok elite, the military leadership, the civilian bureaucracy and the Privy Councillors accept it? Or will they join hands once again and have another coup staged?
Yingluck has promised a Government of reconciliation. She has indicated that there will be no political or legal reprisals against the supporters of the outgoing Government for the way they repeatedly and violently suppressed the supporters of Thaksin who took to street agitation to demand his return to power.
She probably means to adhere to her promise to let bygones be bygones, but will Thaksin and his advisers allow her to do so? Or will they pressure her to go back on her pre-election promises?
Thaksin has always been a man who never says die. By nature, he cannot play second fiddle to anybody—not even to his sister when she is sitting in the chair of the Prime Minister. He will try to assert himself more and more. He will try to teach a lesson or two to the supporters of the outgoing Government. He will try to have the corruption proceedings against him reversed sooner or later. It is doubtful whether his sister will be able to resist the increasing assertion of his influence.
If and when that happens, his opponents will be back in the streets of Bangkok agitating. The continued support of the military leadership, the civilian bureaucracy and the privy councillors could become problematic. One could see a new spell of political instability in Thailand, which would come in the way of its playing its due role in the ASEAN and in it economic growth.
Foreign policy has never been a major issue in the contentious politics of Thailand. It never was when Thaksin was the Prime Minister. There were suspicions about the Chinese origin of his family and about the perceived closeness of Thaksin to China and Singapore. Such suspicions could be revived, but they are unlikely to play any significant role in influencing the future course of internal political events.
Thaksin came to power in 2001 as a politician well-disposed towards India with personal business interests in India, but his attitude started changing when Mr. Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan’s Finance Minister, became the Prime Minister under then President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The common business background of Thaksin and Shaukat brought the two together. Thaksin became an advocate of a more important role for Pakistan in the ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
The outgoing Government had shed Thaksin’s enthusiasm for Pakistan. One has to watch for any signs of revival of the affinity for Pakistan. Along with China and Singapore, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos will continue to be the main foreign policy preoccupations of the new Government.
Thailand’s relations with the US will continue to be close. It had played an important role in helping the US in its rendition operations involving Al Qaeda suspects. It had been sympathetic to continued US naval presence and interests in the ASEAN region. These close relations will continue.