Thailand: Thaksin's Five Ring Circus


Associate Professor Glen Lewis

Thai politics continue under ringmaster Thaksin, who remains firmly in control of the circus. He can shift the political agenda at will through his financial resources, his parliamentary majority and his control over the media. There are five current starring acts. When the ringmaster has difficulty with one, he snaps his whip and introduces another.

There's the usual political dogfight in the first ring. The government has accused Jurin Lakanavisit, the opposition's chief whip, of fraud in rubber sheet sales when serving as deputy commerce minister in 1993-94. Thai Rak Thai (TRT) has been counter-accused concerning its own involvement in rubber sales, while Thaksin has formed a rubber cartel with Indonesia and Malaysia. TRT wants to undermine the strength of the Democrats in the South, the main rubber producing area.

Ring two features the economy act. Thaksin says it's improving and that foreign investment is increasing. Residential property sales and the baht are stronger, but whether the 780 billion baht savings bond package will clean up debts or contribute to another collapse remains to be seen. After extensive public consultation, the Health Insurance Bill will shortly be considered in parliament. The fate of the 30 baht health scheme, however, remains unclear, especially in under-resourced rural areas. Concerns over the implementation of bureaucratic reforms to be passed in October are also widespread.

In the third ring is the struggle between TRT factions leading up to the October 2002 Cabinet reshuffle. Thaksin's chief adviser and leader of the Wang Nam Yen faction, Sanoh Thienthong, has attacked the director of the Highways Department, Jaruk Anupong, for misallocation of funds. This is directed at Jaruks's friend - the Transport and Communications Minister Wan Noor, who leads the southern Wadah faction. Others fighting for Cabinet posts are Thaksin's sister's Wang Bua group, Banharn's Chat Thai and Korn Dabansiri's Chat Pattana Sanuk!

The sideshow of the greedy foreign monopoly hypermarkets - Big C, Tesco, Lotus etc - battling with loyal small Thai retailers is the fourth act. The government's Allied Retail Trade Company will centralise orders from small traders, while the new retail bill will constrain the hypermarkets. Complaints from some foreign Chambers of Commerce about this have been condemned as interference in Thai affairs. But big is better if its Thai - Thaksin recently attended the launch of the Siam Paragon Development, the largest retail centre in Asia since the 1997 crisis.

The star attraction of the circus, however, has been controversy over Thaksin's dealings with the Army. The promotion of Army Chief, Surayud Chulanont, to be Supreme Commander has created concern over whether his replacement, General Somdhat Attanand, who has links with TRT, will waive Surayud's tough line on the Burmese Generalsí border drug trade for the softer line preferred by Thaksin.

WATCHPOINT: Will Thai-Rak-Thai's growing record of nepotistic appointments help stabilise the economy and polity or turn out to be a destabilising factor?


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