BANGKOK — Nearly 2 1/2 years after his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party’s unprecedented electoral victory, recent weeks have seen Thailand’s Premier Thaksin Shinawatra score an unmistakable psychological breakthrough. The change has nothing to do with Thaksin’s own psychology; his supreme self-confidence seems never to have faltered, for years or perhaps even decades. Rather, it is the psychology of broad segments of the Thai public that has changed. As often with resignation or foreboding as with confidence and hope, Thais have now clearly begun to take their premier as seriously as he takes himself.
Thaksin has most recently launched a drive against “dark influences” and local “godfathers.” This effort follows earlier campaigns for “social order” and against drug dealers. If the arrest of Chonburi Province’s Kamnan Po, the most famous of Thailand’s godfathers, has been the most spectacular result of Thaksin’s latest drive, three of its more mundane consequences are more telling.
First, the past month has seen many major underwriters of illegal lotteries in the Thai provinces abruptly leave the business. Extremely popular with ordinary Thais and extremely profitable for their backers, these lotteries have been a staple of provincial life for as long as anyone can remember. Now, however, the very real risk of having their often substantial assets confiscated has scared off many established backers of the lotteries.
Second, the government has moved to free Bangkok’s ubiquitous motorcycle taxis from the control of local strongmen. To a service used by much of the urban middle class, Thaksin aims to bring proper licensing, better safety standards and an image of less obvious gangsterism.
Third, and also in the Thai capital, the operators of even those rackets and vice rings that have long paid for and benefited from police protection have begun to demonstrate a caution unseen for 15 years or more.
Each of these consequences of Thaksin’s move against dark influences reflects his ambition to reinforce the credibility of the Thai state and to be less forgiving of the range of petty illegal and semilegal activities often taken for granted in Thailand. It is a vision whose seriousness and substance have each clearly made an impression.
In pursuing his vision, Thaksin builds on his domination of nearly all the bases of his country’s public life: Parliament, the media, the military and police, and much of the business sector. Both King Phumiphon’s fragile health and the absence of the sort of political crisis that typically provokes royal intervention have also worked to Thaksin’s advantage. Finally, the elected senate and the independent oversight bodies created by Thailand’s 1997 “people’s constitution” remain too new and untested to have significant force as checks on Thaksin’s power. He has, that is, been able to infringe on these institutions’ independence before they found their feet.
Thaksin’s mastery of contemporary Thai affairs is attributable not only to his ruthless determination and financial power but also to his superb political skills. Well-placed sources in his administration suggest his work is to reshape as many current domestic policies as is feasible with the parliamentary elections due by early 2005 explicitly in mind. They report Thaksin’s plans to put an antipoverty agenda at the center of TRT’s re-election campaign. Public policy is now to serve that agenda. While an American politician such as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush might adopt such tactics as second nature, they are new and potentially revolutionary for Thailand.
Thailand’s electorate is notoriously fickle, not least when voters’ economic well-being is at issue. Here, too, Thaksin enjoys a real advantage. The likelihood of several years of continued respectable growth in the Thai economy gives him time to consolidate his position and to put himself effectively beyond the reach of electoral whims. Not coincidentally, this growth also contributes to Thaksin’s own already formidable economic resources.
Regional observers still inclined toward the “Asian values” school of politics read Thaksin’s domination of his country’s affairs as the long overdue emergence of a “stable” political order in Bangkok. They misunderstand Thailand’s history. Others, mainly domestic commentators, note the presence of dark influences and the role of godfathers in Thaksin’s own TRT party. They argue that his current drive against them cannot continue, lest it destroy that party as a useful political organization.
But to dwell on the electoral consequences of Thaksin’s initiatives or even on the likelihood of his staying in power for anywhere near as long as his sometime-model Mahathir Mohamad’s two decades as Malaysia’s prime minister is to miss the import of the psychological change of recent weeks.
Thaksin’s achievement is not to ensure his own or his party’s lock on power. It is rather to transform his country’s perception of what is — for better or worse, and regardless of the consequences for an open society — in the realm of the possible. At the same time, of course, in the thoroughness of that psychological transformation lies one more advantage for Thaksin in his effort to remain dominant in the life of his country.