Thailand’s prime minister, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, is a survivor. Since taking office five years ago, he has weathered allegations of corruption and malfeasance, charges of nepotism, an insurgency in Thailand’s southern provinces and even a public rebuke by the king. Yet, he has bested every challenge and seen his public support increase.
Now Mr. Thaksin’s behavior is again being scrutinized. And once again, the controversy around his policies is likely to be offset by the popularity he enjoys among the Thai people.
Mr. Thaksin is one of Asia’s richest men. He made most of his money in telecommunications during the go-go 1990s when the Thai economy was one of the hottest in the world. His wealth won him considerable support among the Thai people. When he claimed the prime minister’s office in 2001, he was obliged to divest himself of much of that wealth.
The first investigation of his assets followed the disclosure that most of the shares in his company were held by family members and servants when he was serving as a Cabinet minister. An inquiry that could have cost him his office and banned him from politics for five years was resolved in his favor — amid mass public protests in support of him — by the Constitutional Court in an 8-7 vote. The court agreed that he had made “an honest mistake.”
Since then, he has been accused of turning a blind eye to the killing of as many as 2,500 drug dealers when he adopted a “zero tolerance” policy. He has been charged with aggravating separatist tensions in the predominately Muslim south as a result of a heavy-handed military response to problems in that restive region. Critics allege that he has put family members in key positions: His cousin Gen. Chaisit Shinawatra is the military’s supreme commander, and brother-in-law Priawpan Damapong is deputy chief of the national police.
Lately, though, protests against him appear to be reaching a crescendo following the recent charge that he violated conflict-of-interest laws with the sale of Shin Corp., the telecommunications conglomerate he founded. Officially, his children took over ownership of the company after Mr. Thaksin became prime minister, but most observers are skeptical of that claim in light of the prime minister’s dominating personality and the ages of his children, both of whom are in their 20s.
While many of the prime minister’s supporters might be willing to overlook some impropriety, the 73 billion baht ($1.86 billion) tax-free profit on the sale is hard to swallow. In addition, the sale of a national satellite operator as well as the country’s largest mobile phone operator to a foreign company offends many Thais, for whom nationalism is a virtue. It was thought that the prime minister could be counted among their ranks.
Challenging Mr. Thaksin, 28 senators had petitioned the Constitutional Court to again examine his relationship with Shin Corp. On Thursday, however, the court voted 8-6 to reject the petition, and he survived the crisis. If it had decided that the petition had merit, a full-scale investigation would have been launched, overshadowing much of government business for months to come.
This legal battle arose amid a growing tide of protest against the prime minister. Since the Shin Corp. sale was announced, there have been two massive antigovernment demonstrations in Bangkok and weekly rallies against the prime minister, led by a former business partner. College students are said to be collecting signatures calling for his impeachment.
Still, among most Thais, at least those outside Bangkok or the Muslim south, the prime minister remains popular. Mr. Thaksin originally won their support with promises to provide rural villages with billions of baht in welfare funds, to pay their debts or stake small enterprises. By working to keep that promise, he was rewarded with a constituency that maintains an unshakable faith in him.
Those voters gave him a landslide win in last year’s parliamentary election. His Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party won 374 out of 500 seats; its coalition partner grabbed another 26, giving the government an unassailable majority in Parliament. This explains Mr. Thaksin’s apparent lack of concern over the Constitutional Court petition.
Mr. Thaksin is in a strong position. His popularity is contingent on the sense among ordinary Thais that their lives are improving because of him. With the Thai economy expected to grow 5.6 percent in 2005, and to continue expanding in 2006 and 2007, Mr. Thaksin will remain in formidable position. He looks ready to weather these latest challenges.
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