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Most people think of Thailand as the ‘Land of Smiles’, however these days the country is being thought of as the ‘Land of Thaksin Shinawatra’ the ousted ex prime minister.
This is a fact that is giving Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy something to frown about. It may have been seven years since Thaksin was ousted in a coup, but his long shadow continues to dominate Thai politics and it’s hardly surprising when you consider that since he left the country has seen six prime ministers and currently Thaksin’s little sister Yingluck Shinawatra is at the helm.
Like any loving sister Yingluck wants to look out for her next of kin. In her latest effort to protect her big brother she has tried to push through an amnesty bill, tantamount to a get-out-of-jail- card for Thaksin and other politicians involved in often violent political conflicts since 2004. Many see this scheme as somewhat of a political blunder as the markets plunged and more than thirty two thousand people joined demonstrations against the bill in the capital and seventeen other provinces. This week Yingluck backed down and agreed to scrap the bill, for now.
However, anybody who might be thinking that this is the end of Thaksin story would be wrong. This billionaire is not about to shelve his obsession with returning home to reclaim his portion of the telecommunications fortune frozen by the state and his sister. And there are plenty who believe that Yingluck is little more than a placeholder for her big brother, who is so keen to return home.
For now his efforts to achieve his goal have been thwarted, and focus has started to look at how much this setback will cost the billionaire. However, focus should really be turned to how much this political circus is hurting their $366 billion economy, as each day that the politicians and policy makers in Bangkok ponder the question of Thaksin’s return, they are not focusing on how to modernize the economy, increase competiveness and avoid the middle-income trap that befalls many developing nations.
Having said that, politics of personality are not confined to Thailand, Asia is awash with larger than life, charismatic leaders, such as Shinzo Abe in Japan, Xi Jinping in China and to a lesser degree Benigno Aquino in the Philippines. The same problems affect several figures who have yet to reach the helm including Rahul Gandhi. All have neglected tough policy work in hopes that a strong personality will be enough to carry them through and bolster their approval ratings.
But Thaksin raised the strategy to an art form, essentially making an entire nation about him. His tenure from February 2001 to September 2006 saw nothing less than the wholesale bastardization of Thai democracy. He neutered its institutions and enriched his family members and associates in ways that would have made a Russian oligarch blush.
Like former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, Thaksin was a powerful tycoon who leveraged his business success to become leader. Thaksin, like Berlusconi, was later accused of bending the government to his will and in alignment with his business interests. He got away with it by literally bribing the rural communities that formed his power base. His “Thaksinomics” program of flooding the hinterlands with cheap loans was never more than Tammany Hall-like doling out of cash for support. The money did nothing to improve the economy’s fundamentals or capacity for innovation.
It’s a strategy Yingluck copied early and often after becoming prime minister in 2011. Take her disastrous rice-subsidy plan, which by the latest estimate has cost $19 billion since October 2011 and over time has recorded losses equivalent to 59 percent of that figure.
Today, with Thailand sitting on two years of export production has distorted the rice markets in the Mekong River region and that alone has cost the country the title of the world’s biggest rice exporter. Suvarnabhumi airport, built in the same year Thaksin was ousted, continues to struggle with capacity restraints of its ever growing tourist market. You have to ask the question Why champion such a debacle? The rice program is sure to pay huge dividends for Yingluck, and by extension Thaksin, come early 2014 when her government may call a snap poll. The hope would be for Yingluck’s party to demonstrate enough of a mandate to resurrect the amnesty bill. To do that, they will need the farmers. Hence the linear focus on boosting rice prices.
It’s frustrating to think where Thailand might be today had the nation not squandered the last seven years on all things Thaksin. By overreaching so spectacularly with the amnesty bill, Yingluck displayed a level of cluelessness that will further hobble her ability to govern.
The bill might have gotten further if it had also applied to people charged with lese-majeste, which mandates prison sentences as long as 15 years for defaming or insulting the king, queen, heir apparent or regent. Instead the bill would have allowed Yingluck’s brother, army officers and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who faces murder charges for authorizing soldiers to use weapons during unrest in 2010, to walk free – not average Thais. It left the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and opponents known as the Yellow Shirts wondering who, or what, they had been fighting for.
It’s time that the Republic of Thaksin became less about one man and more about the aspirations and needs of Thais.
Taken from an article by William Pesek, a Bloomberg View Columnist