Thailand: Thaksin Almost Triumphant


Dr Glen Lewis

Thaksin Shinawatra has consolidated his own and his party’s dominance some two years after the Thai-Rak-Thai (TRT) Party was elected to power in January 2001. The economy is doing well, the baht is holding at 39 to the US dollar, and another property boom is under way. The Bangkok APEC meeting (17-18 October 2003) showcased Thailand with saturation media coverage and a special parade of the royal barges. Thaksin has also since announced victory in his ‘war on drugs’, underway since February 2003. Before a crowd of 50, 000 and amid a sea of Thai flags, Thaksin declared every part of Thailand except Bangkok drug-free, dedicating the ‘victory’ to the King on the occasion of the monarch’s 76th birthday on 5 December .

Thaksin’s own popularity is clear. One TRT August poll – though hardly an objective measure – scored his popularity in the pro-Democrat south as 80 per cent. The power-broker of the Democrats, Sanan Kachornprasart, also recently said that TRT would very likely win the next national elections in early 2005. Yet reservations remain about Thaksin’s success. King Bhumipol’s birthday speech acknowledged the legitimacy of the anti-drug campaign, but also asked for explanation of the killing of some 2, 500 people. The Police Chief has since ordered an inquiry. The former deputy army Commander-in-Chief, General Wattanachai Chaimuanwong, who unlike General Chavalit took a tough line against Myanmar, has also warned that there are millions of amphetamine pills stashed on the Thai-Burmese border for when the ‘war’ dies down.

Questions also remain over TRT’s economic policies. Some argue that the government’s generous pump-priming is promoting a new economic bubble. The Premier’s actions, too, suggest he is still identifying the interests of his own companies – which include Shin Satellite, the largest cell-phone company AIS, and ITV, the only non-state owned commercial broadcaster – with the national interest. The recently formed budget airline Air Asia, originating in Malaysia, is in a joint partnership with the Shinawatra group. Thaksin also continues to control the media. Senior TRT figures have been buying into the Nation group, one of the few remaining watchdogs. ITV has a request before the Prime Minister’s Office to reduce its annual concession payments. Meanwhile Shin Corp. has filed a libel suit against Supinya Klangnarong, the secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, alleging she had defamed it in the Thai Post by making comments which could make the public think it had benefited from its political connections.

Thaksin is being hailed by his supporters as the ‘new leader of Asia’ now that Dr Mahathir has stepped down. Thaksin does have a grand vision for Thailand’s re-creation of ‘suvannaphummi’ (the golden land) with Thailand leading the integration of the economies of Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia with southern China. Yet it remains to be seen how many of his plans, including his new ‘war on poverty’, which aims to eradicate poverty in six years, will come true.

WATCHPOINT: Are the Thai-Rak-Thai’s economic policies succeeding or are they creating the conditions for another boom and eventual bust as in 1997?


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