Thailand's Titanic Struggle by Thitnan Pongsudhirak
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Thaksin lost political power but not his potency to trigger another military coup

BANGKOK: -- After more than a year of prolonged political crisis and confrontation, capped by last September’s military coup, Thailand’s murky political environment appears headed towards even greater uncertainty and instability. The coup restored the “holy trinity” of the military, the bureaucracy and the monarchy to the apex of Thailand’s socio-political hierarchy, and put down, at least for the time being, the upstart new order represented by deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his crew. However, the putsch did not put away Thaksin politically for the myriad corruption accusations and alleged abuses of power that hounded his five-year rule.

By New Year’s Eve, when multiple and coordinated bomb blasts convulsed central Bangkok, it became clear that what has transpired since September 19 is a coup gone wrong. Insinuating that remnants of Thaksin’s ousted regime were culpable for the lethal bomb attacks, the military junta, the self-styled Council for National Security, still looked inept because of its inability to maintain security in the capital.

Already reeling from a series of setbacks ranging from the failed liberalization of the underground lottery and slow progress in prosecuting the Shinawatra family’s shady land purchase and tax evasion to policy flip-flops on capital controls, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, an erstwhile privy councillor and former army commander-in-chief, consequently became more reliant on the CNS as security priorities surged to the forefront of its policy agenda against the backdrop of its apparent technocratic incompetence.

As both the CNS and the Surayud government have lost their way in the aftermath of the coup, what is likely to take place from here onwards is the continuation of a titanic struggle between the forces of the Establishment and those of Thaksin. At stake will be no less than Thailand’s very heart and soul. Three concurrent trends portend why and how this grand battle will run its course. thaksin

First, Thaksin still represents a potent and unrivalled political phenomenon previously unseen in Thailand. He commands deep pockets, thanks to a telecommunications and media empire built on state concessions and government connections. The sale of his family’s flagship company, Shin Corp, to Temasek Holdings early last year netted Thaksin a 73.3 billion baht (US $2 billion) windfall.

Moreover, Thaksin is a unique, consummate personality, who can count on a vast network of contacts, informants, sympathizers, and loyalists in many echelons of the police, the military, the bureaucracy, the private sector, not to mention the rural masses and urban poor who voted his Thai Rak Thai party into office in January 2001 with two successful re-elections in February 2005 and April 2006 (the latter result subsequently nullified).

Most important, Thaksin believes in the righteousness of his cause. Although his opponents have justifiably denounced him for corruption and abuses of power, Thaksin sees his pro-poor, populist platform as a clutch of innovative ideas to remake Thailand into a more egalitarian society, upending its neo-feudal underpinnings. The Thaksin phenomenon, his denials in media outlets such as CNN notwithstanding, is thus unstoppable because of the sheer force of Thaksin’s personality, belief and resources.

Second, the CNS generals have unwittingly facilitated Thaksin’s political longevity.

After failing to take Thaksin to task aggressively in the fortnight after the coup, the CNS set up a lackluster cabinet full of elderly and mostly retired hands from the bureaucracy, and followed up with the appointment of a national assembly with substantial military representation.

The ruling generals also failed to press their coup justifications of Thaksin’s corruption, constitutional usurpation, societal polarization, and disrespect of the king. Their post-coup management had been so dismal that the New Year’s Eve bomb blasts led to rumors of another coup to tighten the military’s grip and get rid of Thaksin’s agents provocateurs and other agitators for good. Indeed, if its security maintenance slips further and Thaksin continues to gain ground on the generals, a harsher, incumbency coup may be in the offing. It would be a coup staged in the same direction with similar objectives, but with a new leadership and tougher methods and means. Another coup in 2007 would almost certainly delay the already contentious and problematic constitution-drafting and election timetables, and could become a source of street protests, with enabling conditions for Thaksin to make his political comeback.

Finally, the September 19 coup was unlike previous putsches in contemporary Thailand for its critical timing. Its tumultuous aftermath is panning out as Thais enter the twilight of their monarch’s glorious 60-year-old reign in a 21st century kingdom characterized by unresolved polarization and an ongoing tussle for the country’s future after the royal succession. Thailand as it is known today has modernized from an Asian backwater to a middle-income nation with a gleaming metropolitan capital, weighed down by social and income disparities between the rich and middle classes on the one hand and the poor on the other, between Bangkok and the countryside.

Unless the Establishment makes greater efforts in bridging this yawning gap, Thaksin may well get another turn. Whichever side comes out on top in this grand struggle, Thailand as we know it is coming to an end. A new Thailand will emerge in an arduous and contested process during which its denizens and foreign friends from near and far should lend a helping hand as much as they can for as smooth a transition as possible.

-- The Irrawaddy 2007-02-03 more..

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