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A Week in Review: August 13-19, 2011

Montenegro's Most Wanted!

The ink may be barely dry on its royal endorsement, but Thailand’s new government is already making its mark. Find out how here…

As the Phuea Thai Government gets down to business, it’s time to find out exactly where the party’s priorities lie and just how many of its pre-election promises it plans to keep.

With the election safely won, Phuea Thai has dropped some of its “megaprojects” and populist vote-winning policies, such as the 20-baht flat rate train ticket for Bangkok’s mass transit routes, the construction of a high-speed train network, and the extension of the Airport Rail Link train.

However, Phuea Thai has – for the time-being at least – gone ahead with its much-needed but controversial policy to implement a nationwide minimum wage of 300 baht per day.

Meanwhile, one of the busiest new Cabinet ministers has been Surapong Towijakchaikul. While Phuea Thai is emphasising the importance of rebuilding relationships with neighbouring countries – such as renewing Thaksin’s oil deals with Hun Sen in Cambodia – Surapong has found himself pressed into more immediate action.

Having been hand-picked by Thailand’s de facto prime minister, the totally unqualified and inexperienced foreign minister has found himself instantly obliged to repay his master.

Despite telling reporters that he was caught by surprise by an appointment he had no interest in and that he has yet to start his work at the ministry, Surapong did find time last week to meet with Japanese ambassador to Thailand Seiji Kojima and request that Japan grant Thaksin a special entry visa so that he can visit areas devastated by the March earthquake and give a talk on democracy, which is a bit like an earthquake giving a speech on the integrity of nuclear reactors.

The Japanese government has since confirmed that it plans to grant the visa after Pheua Thai stated it wished to revoke restrictions on Thaksin’s overseas travel. "The Thai government...takes a policy of not prohibiting former prime minister Thaksin from visiting any country and requested that Japan issue a visa," said Yukio Edano, Japan's chief cabinet secretary.

Despite his earlier denials, Surapong also admitted he had asked the Japanese government to do him a “favour” by granting Thaksin an entry visa because he believed that every legal case against Thaksin was politically motivated.

However, he did not mention that Thaksin’s own brother-in-law was Prime Minister when Thaksin was convicted, nor did he inform the Japanese that Thaksin had been acquitted by the same court of various other charges under dubious circumstances.

In contrast, ignoring the rule of law to aid the de facto leader of your political party certainly could be considered as politically motivated and the Democrats have vowed to launch an impeachment against Surapong. While the Democrats have every chance of success, it is unlikely to matter to Phuea Thai as Surapong with his clearly defined objective appears to be nothing more than a stop-gap fall-guy until the banned Thai Rak Thai executives complete their political bans next year.

Incidentally, Surapong also denied that the Foreign Ministry has made preparations to re-issue Thaksin with a diplomatic Thai passport. However, as he also originally denied that he had asked Japan to issue Thaksin a special entry permit, we can expect Thaksin to be trading in his Montenegrin passport of convenience in the not too distant future.

Meanwhile, Phuea Thai has also revealed that it plans to rekindle one of the most controversial policies of the Thaksin administration. An estimated 2,700 civilians died in extra judicial killings during the Thaksin-led war on drugs.

While drug use is a major scourge on Thai society, the sanctioning of arbitrary death squads is hardly the way to tackle the problem. And with Chalerm Yubamrung set to lead the latest war, Thailand’s poor record on human rights is unlikely to improve.

Phuea Thai has also promised to solve the unrest in Southern Thailand where it is hoped that the situation will be handled more humanely than under the previous Thaksin-led regime. In 2004, 32 armed insurgents were killed at Khrue Se Mosque while another 78 unarmed Thai Muslim demonstrators died in the infamous Tak Bai incident.

The buzzword at Phuea Thai continues to be “reconciliation”, which is somewhat ironic since it was the party’s leader who was responsible for polarising the nation in the first place.

One of the (allegedly) main agitators behind last year’s violence, Jatuporn Prompan, jumped on another of Phuea Thai’s “urgent” policies of rehabilitation last week by demanding that the families of those killed in the riots receive 10 million baht compensation.

While there is no doubt that a request to compensate people who were paid or otherwise manipulated to break the law and provide a human shield around their gutless leaders is justified, it begs two questions: what is a fair level of compensation? And who should be responsible for paying it?

The 85 Tak Bai protesters mentioned earlier were unarmed and the majority of them died of suffocation with their hands tied behind their backs. In contrast, elements within the red shirt masses used weapons against civilians and government authorities who were doing their duty to restore peace to the centre of the nation’s capital.

The red shirt protesters refused to move even after their initial demands were met, and their guards openly intimidated local citizens and prevented thousands of people from returning home, attending school, or earning a living.

As well as causing many small businesses and low income earners to suffer, the red shirts caused untold damage to property and maintained a stance that was as confrontational as possible.

So just what level of compensation could be considered fair? As a precedent, the Tak Bai protesters received no compensation from the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

And just a few weeks ago, an investigation into Thaksin’s aforementioned war on drugs found three police officers responsible for the death of a baby during a police raid. The compensation was set at 10,000 baht.

And if compensation can be agreed, who should pay it? One Democrat MP suggested that it should be paid by Thaksin as it was in his name that the red shirts were assembled and the violence orchestrated.

Despite the inexcusably heavy-handed tactics of the army during the latter stages of last year’s siege, it should also be remembered that the first victims of last year’s troubles were soldiers who were at the time armed only with batons.

In the name of true reconciliation, those who died for what they mistakenly believed was a genuine cause would be better served by seeing their killers brought to justice than by financial compensation. And the new government has also vowed to support the Truth for Reconciliation Commission’s investigation into last year’s political unrest.

If Phuea Thai is genuine about seeking out the truth rather than its own one-sided version of events, the party is to be applauded. However, the dilemmas of overcoming the military’s stonewalling and of delivering any “truth” which could show Phuea Thai’s own supporters in a bad light suggest that they will be as ineffective in their pursuit of truth and justice as the Democrats before them.

Paul Snowdon – August 20, 2011

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