Monday, October 09, 2006

The king of Siam

The king of Siam
Manjit Bhatia
Thaksin Shinawatra, a business tycoon, übercapitalist and pro-globalisation, thought himself as king of Thailand ? and more of a king than the incumbent, Bhumibol Aduljadej. That would have irked Bhumipol to no end. But worse was to come, leading to his political demise. Thaksin thought himself as utterly indispensable to his people and nation; he thought that he was the state and the nation. Since taking power in 2001, Thaksin ruled Thailand with almost an iron-fist. Before his ouster, on Sept 19 through a bloodless military coup, Thaksin seemed on the threshold of cornering every aspect of Thai political life.
He had begun to curtail the basic rights of Thais, especially the vigorously independent and highly respected media. He had given Thai Police the power to ruthlessly mow down even suspected drug peddlers in the streets and in broad daylight. Using sections of the politically-pliant military, he played wedge-politics, pitting predominantly Buddhist Thais against minority Muslims in the south. In the restive south Thaksin waged long and bloody war against Muslim secessionists seeking their own state. He has blood on his hands. Worse, he was looking increasingly dictatorial, even if countries like the United States and Australia are too hypocritically blind to see this.

Not one country in Southeast Asia can be considered democratic in any imaginable way. Under Thaksin, neither was Thailand. That Washington swiftly suspended its US$30 million military aid to Bangkok in the wake of the coup suggests sublime western hypocrisy. But hypocrisy isn’t the preserve of the west only. That the Thai coup generals quickly grovelled to the Americans in a bid to get them to change their decision is sickening. Since the end of World War II, the US has backed some of the most brutal and murderous anti-democratic regimes, from Asia to the Middle East, and from Africa to South America.

Even Australia had backed the anti-democratic, corrupt and murderous Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia while turning its back on East Timor as Timorese fighters struggled for their homeland against Indonesian invasion and colonialism. Today, Canberra continues to turn a blind eye to West Papua, where the Indonesian occupiers routinely abuse the locals’ basic human rights. Meanwhile, Australia’s moral conviction to the sanctity of all human life is being whitewashed by Prime Minister John Howard’s readiness to appease Indonesia and not protect West Papuan refugees from abuse and murder by Indonesian police and military forces.

It is wildly preposterous for any western nation, including the US and Australia, to suddenly argue that the military coup in Thailand has robbed the place of its democratic principles and institutions. Thaksin, arguably Thailand’s richest man, and his cronies were slowly but surely withering these away anyway, whilst they, in concert, plundered the country to amass vast personal wealth for themselves. Many of the cronies fled the country along with their patron, Thaksin. Many are currently under investigation, including Thaksin, for indictable offences. Many, hopefully, will not even think of returning to Thailand. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai political party is dead. After 200-odd members resigned en masse, Thaksin did also.

Nothing has changed

Allegations of corruption and abuse of power against Thaksin and his cronies are nothing new but they’ll have to be proved first. So what has changed in Southeast Asia after the late 90s Asian economic crisis? Nothing. The same abuses of power, the same cronies, the same patron-client structures, and the same institutions that embed all of these crooks, access to financial and political largesse, remain unbroken. If anything, Southeast Asia’s political elite and their cronies are even more so protected now from open scrutiny and conviction through the courts. It’s farcical, a blatant lie, for Southeast Asian leaders to claim that they have reformist zeal. Their only zeal is to deceive the masses, and for as long as possible.

The Singapore government-owned investment vehicle, Temasek Holdings, may have bought Thaksin’s telecommunications monolith, Shin Corp, without violating Thai law. However, the morality of the transaction is questionable. It is hard to believe that Singapore didn’t know Thaksin was planning to pocket the US$1.9 billion sale price without paying a dime in tax. Meanwhile Ho Ching, wife of one of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s sons, has stayed completely aloof and silent as the political crisis started to brew in Thailand in the sale’s aftermath. But Thaksin refused to budge and Singapore became morally mute.

If the sale, as Temasek Holdings has claimed, was so straightforward, why is Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce investigating the entire transaction after, presumably, it would have done so when the deal was being negotiated? Singapore claims Temasek-backed Thai investment company Kularb Kaew, through whom Tesmasek bought the remaining shares in Shin Corp, did not act as its proxy. But Kularb Kaew is an active investment partner of Temasek Holdings through various other joint ventures. Nevertheless, since taking over Shin Corp, Temasek has suffered a paper loss of US$820 million from the deal. Small bickies to Temasek, whose investment portfolio boasts a whopping US$81.1 billion. It could easily gobble up any of Malaysia’s top 10 conglomerates.

Some critics, inside and outside Thailand, say the coup is a direct assault on Thai democracy. Rubbish. Thai democracy, like most claims to democracy in the Third World, holds about as much credibility as Thaksin and his cronies declaring that their huge wealth accumulation since 2001 has been in the interest of the Thai nation. The critics’ cockamamie rationalisation is nothing more than selective posturing verging on political idiocy. Because none have dared to even claim that the coup was therefore also a direct assault on the Thai monarchy. But it’s not.

This coup would not have taken place if Thaksin and his cronies were not abusing political power and plundering the economy for their personal benefit, or if Thaksin wasn’t bent on striking politics that would have dis-unified the nation. Or if, by his own hand, he was giving succour to the violent Muslim-based secessionists in the south, whilst driving a wedge between rich and poor Thais elsewhere. This coup would not have taken place if King Bhumibol Aduljadej hadn’t given his approval to the coup generals. This coup, to be sure, had its impetus, if not it was drawn up, within the palace’s walls.

So what of Thai democracy down the track? It doesn’t matter. Thai politics today is the politics of old, where the military has never been de-politicised. It may have ‘returned to the barracks’ but it has always had a say in national politics one way or another. This time it has voiced its views, and marched to action, via the palace.

As long as Thais revere the monarchy more than they pay attention to building genuine democratic institutions, where there is an open and accountable government and opposition, including a truly free press, Thai democracy will always remain hamstrung between rivals within the palace and modern politicians who think, as Thaksin did, that they can ride roughshod over Thai institutions and bastardise them to their own political and financial ends. One other thing: it won’t be the military’s responsibility to repair the rift between the Muslim south and Bangkok, or between the rich and poor; it’ll be the responsibility of the new government, for what that’s worth. But it must also be the king’s responsibility since it is he who wanted change and brought about Thaksin’s demise.

The one big problem in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, isn’t democracy. The big problem is corruption, and it reaches the offices of political leaders, including prime ministers and presidents. Rooting out these vile old elements can’t begin by merely grafting new institutions on old ones. New leaders must be found who would genuinely dismantle the old structures of corruption, cronyism and nepotism, and racial politics. The sorry fact, though, is that no new leaders with that kind of gumption exist anywhere in the region. Nations are only as good as their leaders. That says a lot for Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia.

MANJIT BHATIA, an academician and writer, is also research director of AsiaRisk, a political, economic and risk analysis consultancy in Australia. He specialises in international economics and politics, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific

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