HONG KONG — Abhisit Vejjajiva seems the least likely person to rescue Thailand from what commentators claim are the death throes of democracy. He is boyish-looking, physically slight, has no commanding military or police connections, no reputation for wheeling and dealing, and was foreign born and educated, albeit at the top people’s school in Britain — Eton — and then at its best university — Oxford.
His failure to make his presence felt in the tumultuous political street theater playing in Bangkok these past few months counts against him. Or was it the aloofness of a gentleman who did not deign to stoop to the grimy gutter world of Thai politics? Even worse.
These factors have led critics, Thai and foreign, to claim that Khun Abhisit is a puppet, though they argue over who is pulling his strings — the royal court, the bureaucracy, the military, the Bangkok elite or the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra mob.
They are unfair and I hope they’re proved wrong. Abhisit could be the leader to take Thailand back to the democratic path, restore its damaged international reputation and make it again one of Asia’s leading developing economies.
Admittedly, it is easier said than done and depends on what dirty deals Abhisit’s friends have made to tempt defectors from the Thaksin camp and whether he can assert himself and steer clear policies through the myriad greedy and cunning conflicting interests that will dance attendance on his government.
There is an interesting precedent of an Oxford-educated Thai prime minister in inauspicious circumstances. In 1975, Kukrit Pramoj became prime minister. Kukrit was colorful, a prince, newspaper founder, novelist, actor — he played the prime minister opposite Marlon Brando in “The Ugly American” — and expert in Thai culture. His Social Action Party had only 18 of 269 national assembly seats when Thai politicians, just released from military control, were unscrupulous in selling their support for money.
Yet “MR” Kukrit not only kept power for months, he was able to push through a revolutionary scheme that gave 5 billion bahts to each tambon (group of 10 villages) to spend as they liked, no strings attached. Kukrit was the first leader to give the initiative to poor rural Thai society to kick-start development. Thaksin came along 25 years later and his money was tied closely to voting preferences. Abhisit at least has command of the substantial Democrat Party. In spite of their weakness in rural areas, particularly the northeast, the Democrats won 34 percent of the vote in the last election.
The new prime minister’s strength is that he is thoroughly and thoughtfully Thai. When I interviewed him as opposition leader, he said his manifesto was to promote “basic change that moves Thailand to become a model of an emerging economy and democracy where we can thrive in a world of global competition, can live with the market system, allow our people to enjoy full rights and participation and retain our culture and identity.”
Classically, he saw the government’s role as maintaining a level playing field and opening the doors for all, including poor rural Thais.
He accused the former prime minister, whom he politely called “Khun Thaksin” on all but one of 14 mentions, of “not enforcing the basic values of democracy. He wants to make people see politics as management by one person, moving the economy away from the driving force of competition to ‘know-who’ rather than knowhow in a web of cronyism.”
One glaring weakness is that Abhisit is stiff. Each time I pointed a camera at him it was as if I poured a fresh bucket of starch over him. He is brighter, a deeper thinker and faster on his feet than Thaksin, but he lacks the former prime minister’s oratorical skills and political daring.
More crucial of course is that Abhisit is untested and will find it is not easy to put fine principles and ideals into practice in the grubby maelstrom of political life of Thailand today.
Who actually did the dirty dealing that brought the Thaksin rebels over to give Abhisit the votes to secure his election? Some of the people who came to his rescue had a black reputation even when they were part of Thaksin’s government.
Abhisit is well aware that there are many conflicting interests who regard him as their puppet. Some are ruthless and claim powerful backers, notably the People’s Alliance for Democracy, whose mobs took over the prime minister’s office and Bangkok’s airports, while the security authorities looked on and Thaksin’s brother-in-law prime minister dared not assert himself or call their bluff.
The royal court, the bureaucracy and the military all want their say — and their cut — in how Thailand is run, and Abhisit has to calculate how much he needs them and how much they need him.
Then there is the aggrieved Thaksin Shinawatra, fuming in exile in Hong Kong, China, Dubai and Indonesia that power was snatched away from him. Although he protests that he is not interested in a political comeback, he never really went away, except physically. He makes daily calls to his supporters telling them his wishes.
Foreign journalists have over-romanticized Thaksin as a man of the Thai people, forgetting that when he was in power he was a virtual one-man band. He is now a convicted criminal in exile. Yes, Thai judges will be under suspicion for having taken sides and dispensed a harsh judgment faster than usual. But the charges on which Thaksin was convicted were milder than the accusation of his abuses of power.
The lesson of former Oxford-educated prime minister Kukrit is that even a minority leader must be his own person and must dare to take policy initiatives, not wait for the squabbling consensus.
Abhisit may count it to his advantage that he is Thailand’s fifth prime minister this year and that Thais are tired of their corrupt erstwhile rulers. The military is licking its wounds from its failures when it took over the government after kicking Thaksin out. PAD thugs disgraced Thailand internationally as well as crippling the lucrative tourism industry.
King Bhumipol Adulyadej must long for someone who can grace his long reign with a reputation for caring government It is time for a fresh leader with the mantle of honesty, cue Abhisit?
Kevin Rafferty was editor in chief of the Thailand’s Business Day newspaper.
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