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A Week in Review: August 27 - September 2, 2011

Who let the frogs out?

If you put a live frog into a pan of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if you put a live frog into a pan of cold water and heat the water up slowly, the frog will just sit there until it boils. But what has this got to do with Thai politics? Find out here…

The first time Thaksin Shinawatra ruled Thailand, he had a grand plan.

The plan was not new. It had been tried and tested by the likes of Adolf Hitler no less.

The plan was not complicated, either. It was to use a democratic process to create a dictatorship – to create a new dynasty by usurping power away from a ruling elite that operates on a level above that of mere politics. A people’s revolution.

So Thaksin’s grand plan was proven and simple. Yet it failed. The frog jumped out of the pan.

It had all started well enough, perhaps too well. After identifying a poorly educated and, therefore, easily manipulated majority, Thaksin won their loyalty by appearing to show an interest in their problems and offering to fix them.

Having only ever been exploited or ignored by politicians before, Thailand’s poor were dazzled by Thaksin’s charm. And they did what they had never done before. They voted in their millions for a man whom they genuinely believed cared about them and would solve all their problems.

Even Bangkok’s middle classes were wooed by this successful businessman turned politician when he promised to put an end to Bangkok’s traffic problems within 6 months.

As a general rule, if something looks too good to be true, it usually is. However, Thaksin was swept into power on a tide of euphoria. A master of spin and PR, he became a cult hero. He was the Messiah, bullet-proof and untouchable. Or so he began to believe.

But you can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Although educated middle-class Thais had begun to see through him, Thaksin increased his support, primarily among Thailand’s north and north-eastern poor, and when he began an unprecedented second term as PM, it was with an even larger majority.

The plan was going well. The constitution was favourably re-written and strategic positions in the military, the police and the judiciary were filled by key allies.

But the water was boiling too quickly. The frog was starting to feel uncomfortable. It jumped out of the pan.

Thaksin watched and waited as a military junta and then a military backed civilian government failed to address the needs of Thailand’s poor. He watched as the courts dissolved not one but two of his political parties but failed to break the back of his support.

Thaksin was kept on the run, a fugitive, but his loyal supporters did not lose faith. On the contrary, the master of spin and PR became even more of a cult hero. He was an innocent victim after all. Champion of the poor, defender of democracy, he was the figurehead of the downtrodden masses, a twice-elected leader who had been run out of town by a ruthless military coup.

Having failed with the Adolf Hitler method, it was time to try a little Mao Tze Tung. A red revolution was organised and the international spin machine went into overdrive.

Thaksin might not be back in the kitchen just yet, but he is certainly directing the chef. A new pan of frog soup is being prepared. The heat is being turned up a little more slowly this time. But it is being turned up nevertheless.

In this information age, propaganda is a powerful tool. Phuea Thai MPs have been accused of paying reporters to present the new government and its policies in a positive light. Red shirts have openly intimidated members of the press who dare to ask the PM awkward questions.

Thaksin himself has gone from telling international reporters that he just wants to relax and play golf to admitting that he would consider coming back to Thailand if the people wanted him to help them.

“I owe them,” he said – a comment wide open to ominous interpretation.

Thaksin has already picked his proxy prime minister as well as his cabinet. The appointment that raised the most eyebrows was engineer turned Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul. A distant relative of Thaksin and a loyal stooge, Surapong spent the first week of his tenure hiding his surprise at his appointment, convincing Japan to give Thaksin a visa, and then denying that he had convinced Japan to give Thaksin a visa. He might be inexperienced, but boy is he a quick learner.

Surapong replaced Kasit Piromya – the prominent yellow shirt who went on to become Foreign Minister in the Democrat-led coalition. With the exception of Kasit, the Democrats distanced themselves from the yellow shirts who put them in power. And they suffered the consequences at this year’s election.

Phuea Thai is wary of not making the same mistake. Although no red shirt leaders were given cabinet posts, they are being rewarded with other positions.

Despite lacking qualifications or experience, several red shirt co-leaders were last week appointed as advisers, secretaries and assistant secretaries to various ministers. They join about 10 other key red shirts who have already been appointed to political positions.

Aree Krainara – who has no relevant qualifications or experience and was appointed as secretary to Interior Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit because he is head of the UDD Red Guard – retorted: "There will be no double standards. We will ensure the ministry is free from cronyism."

And after self-proclaimed anti-corruption warrior and Rak Thai leader Chuvit Kamolvisit “broke” the story of an illegal casino operating in downtown Bangkok, Deputy PM Chalerm Yubamrung seized the opportunity to demand a police reshuffle, citing rampant gambling and drug use as further justification.

Chalerm seemed to suddenly remember that there were actually 40 illegal casinos in Bangkok, with police collecting a 50,000 baht bribe for each slot machine. Chalerm made a very public announcement that the casinos were to be raided within the next 3 days, which was just enough warning to make sure none of the operators were caught – excellent police work designed to ensure the gravy train was back on the rails once the illusion of fighting crime had served its purpose.

Sure enough, by the end of the week, Democrat-appointed police chief Pol Gen Wichean Potephosree had agreed to step down to be replaced by Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Pol Gen Priewpan Damapong.

On the face of it, it looks like more double standards and cronyism. However, Wichean has done little or nothing to address institutionalised corruption within the police force, while Priewpan has a good track record at tackling drugs as chief of the Narcotics Suppress Bureau. He also has a reputation of being “clean”, with no allegations of corruption besmirching his professional status, and he is highly respected by his subordinates.

"Police working as small-time traffickers must stop. We have a list of police who are involved. We will make tangible progress within three months, though there will be no extra-judicial killings," Pol Gen Priewpan said. I don't think he was joking about the last part.

So the water is being heated up more slowly this time, but it is already getting warm and there are signs that the frog is getting a little anxious again. But will it jump?

Paul Snowdon – September 3, 2011

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