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THAKSIN SHINAWATRA

When money and politics merge

by Jeff Kingston

THE THAKSINIZATION OF THAILAND, by Duncan McCargo and Ukrist Pathmanand. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2005, 277 pp., $23 (cloth).

Thaksin Shinawatra is Thailand’s flamboyant and controversial prime minister, a wealthy telecom magnate who has transformed the domestic political scene in significant ways since his landslide election in 2001.

This fine book describes how he has taken advantage of the opportunities created by the financial crisis and new constitution of 1997 to nurture an authoritarian democracy in thrall to well-connected business conglomerates. The authors argue that his influence is pernicious and detrimental to Thailand’s political development.

Who is Thaksin? In the authors’ view, “a representative of the nouveau riche Sino-Thai business elite, given to the flaunting of wealth and conspicuous consumption.” He is depicted as the natural outcome of the merger of money and politics in Thailand over the past 25 years. He has fully exploited the concentration of executive power laid out in the 1997 constitution while undermining the new institutions designed to promote accountability and curb abuse of such powers. His “approach to the new institutions was to penetrate them, politicize them and to subordinate them to his own will and purposes.”

Thaksin has established new political networks characterized by more openly assertive business groups and strong military ties. By embracing populist policies such as cheap health care, debt forgiveness for farmers and micro-credit programs targeting villages, Thaksin has won broad electoral support. It is not clear that these policies are spreading the fruits of Thailand’s impressive economic development or effectively addressing rural poverty. However, according to the authors, populism is winning elections and hoodwinking the people while his cronies’ plundering of Thailand proceeds apace.

Like all strongmen, Thaksin is allergic to criticism. He blasted The National Human Rights Commission’s report on the bloody drug war, blaming it for washing the nation’s dirty linen in public and smearing Thailand’s reputation. The authors show how he has manipulated the media to gloss over problems and divert attention away from more serious allegations. For example, his widely criticized mishandling of the southern Muslim problem was pushed off the front pages by an aborted, but well-timed, bid to buy Britain’s Liverpool Football Club. When PR or diversionary tactics don’t work, intimidation and hardball business tactics have helped him keep the mainstream media on a short leash. In such ways he has stifled Thailand’s civil society.

We learn that “under Thaksin, big business has directly seized political power, [and] politics has become more personalized.” His party Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) has emerged as a well-oiled political machine relying on the latest polling and marketing methods. It has succeeded in bypassing traditional linkages and networks by opening up new channels of communication such as the prime minister’s weekly radio program. However, “the party remains fundamentally reliant on traditional Thai forms of campaigning and canvassing, many of them illegal.” Thus, rigging elections and peddling influence remain rife.

The authors pull back the veil on the Thai political system, demonstrating how the military’s political role remains powerful despite cosmetic reforms. They write: “the military learned to adapt themselves to civilian rule during a period characterized by a vibrant civil society and growing demands for reform. Once those demands had been superficially assuaged by the 1997 constitution . . . reformist generals were quickly pushed aside.”

Thaksin has wooed the military by bestowing economic benefits and nurturing a clique dependent on his patronage. He also uses the military to his advantage, for example guiding its broadcasting operations to bolster government support.

Here, “Thaksinization” is shorthand for systemic cronyism, corruption, and missed opportunities. The authors lament that “Instead of marking the triumph of Thailand’s vibrant private sector over its moribund military and bureaucracy, Thaksin’s rule celebrated the kind of distasteful structural corruption” that has long prevailed.

In February, Thaksin won a landslide re-election that gave him the largest parliamentary majority in Thai history, but since then a sputtering economy, scandals and more open political dissension have dimmed his aura.

Thaksin was once a police cadet and has projected a get-tough image by cracking down on the drug trade and Muslim separatists in the south. In doing so, he has run afoul of human-rights groups for extrajudicial killings and policies that have transformed many moderate Muslims into sympathizers and supporters of extremists. Thaksin has also backpedaled from the prodemocracy policies of his predecessors in dealing with the reigning military junta in Myanmar.

Looking to the future, the authors sketch various scenarios ranging from a stable one-party kleptocracy to violent protests against “his increasingly rapacious interventionism — such as recent attempts to politicize the process of monastic promotions.”

Will there be a return to the democracy of the streets in 1992 that ushered in an era of reforms subsequently derailed by Thaksin? Nobody knows, but the authors’ cogent assessment of the new political economy of Thailand is essential reading for anyone interested in this question.