Thursday, July 1, 2010

Thailand Lobbying war heats up

Thaksin may need to admit he backed reds financially, to win on global stage
As the Abhisit government yesterday was anxiously expecting a US congressional resolution on the political trouble in Thailand, The Wall Street Journal might have dropped some hints on how Thaksin Shinawatra is shaping his international strategy.
Describing the fugitive as the first among a new generation of wealthy activists fighting to bring about changes for Thailand's poor, the WSJ might have inadvertently presented an argument against the Abhisit administration's portrayal of rich supporters of the red shirts as sponsors of terrorism.

In its front-page article on the financial crackdown on Thaksin, his family members, relatives and associates, WSJ said the government dragnet "points to an important driver behind the continuing tensions in Thailand".

"While many of the demonstrators were from Thailand's poorer rural heartland, many of their backers are beleived to hail from a new generation of entrepreneurs and businesses who are challenging Bangkok's old military and bureaucratic chiefs for a greater say in how Thailand is run," the paper said.

That reflects a remarkable modification - if not a shift - from how the red shirts are often seen by sympathisers here and abroad. It used to be a purely grass-root movement fighting for a rich politician because he was the one they chose. Financial help, it was understood, was not huge or significant, let alone coming in a steady stream from a new generation of wealthy reformers.

It would be no surprise if Noppadol Pattama, one of Thaksin's closest aides, was using the adapted argument in Washington, where he had been scheduled to meet influential people including some senators to lobby for Thaksin and the movement. The financial crackdown has been a blow not only to the Thaksin circles but the red shirts themselves, who called their political fight a war by the nation's poor against the elites.

How the red shirts are perceived internationally is important. In fact, Thaksin's slim chances of survival depend almost entirely on that. This means he will have to walk a tightrope. On one hand he can't be seen as hiring poor people to fight for him, but on the other hand he needs to counter the Abhisit administration's all-out attempts to expose financial links between him and the movement.

Red leaders have been found to be richer than average Thais, with millions of baht in their known bank accounts, which authorities doubt are the only places they put their money. And although no clear-cut evidence has been disclosed by the government to back claims that tens of billions of baht might have been spent to sponsor the red campaign, the alleged numbers were staggering and have to be refuted.

The battle lines, shifted from Bangkok's main streets to the international arena, is getting clearer now. The government has tried to portray an infiltrated, or exploited, movement within which some sections have been well oiled financially and thus equipped to effect political upheaval through pre-meditated violence. The other side may choose to drop their staunch denial of systematic funding in favour of well-intended support by wealthy reformers.

Such "admission" of financial backing will keep the story of a romantic political struggle alive. But, perhaps more importantly, if some explosive evidence turns up linking major transactions of the "wealthy ideologists" to the red shirts, it won't sound at least too shocking to the outside world.

But, as the WSJ concluded in its article, the red shirts may have to detach themselves from Thaksin in the end. "Going it alone might cast the movement in a more favourable light," the paper said. Although that more or less undermines the wealthy-reformers-helping-the-poor scenario, the statement may reflect one hard truth: money and poor men's political struggle are a bad mix. By Tulsathit Taptim for The Nation, Bangkok

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