Monday, June 20, 2011

Thais Try to Foil Thaksin Sister's Candidacy

The perjury ploy seems a bit late

The announcement Saturday of a "citizen" petition calling for a legal review of allegations of perjury by Yingluck Shinawatra appears to be a sign of growing uneasiness on the part of Thailand's political establishment that the sister of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could lead her Pheu Thai Party to victory in elections scheduled for July 3.

Kaewsun Atibhodi, a former member of the now-defunct Assets Examination Committee, which looked into Thaksin's controversial business deals before he was indicted and convicted of corruption following the 2006 coup that drove him from power, told reporters he would submit the petition to the chief of Thailand's Department of Special investigation on Tuesday, according to local media, which said the crowd at the petition event included many members of the anti-Thaksin multi-colored shirts . Kaewsun denied any political motive.

The petition deals with Yingluck's testimony during her brother's trial. Kaewsun told a rally Saturday that he had launched the petition drive because no state agency had acted against the woman, who was a top executive in one of Thaksin's companies. The trial occurred in October 2008, meaning that a government hostile to Thaksin's interests hadn't bothered to investigate her for perjury charges for more than two and a half years, but is now being pushed to do so with two weeks left before the election and with the government-led Democrat Party and its leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, running behind.

The latest events spell rising tension in one of Southeast Asia's most important countries, the world's biggest rice exporter and a regional powerhouse for auto production and the manufacture of auto parts and accessories. Although the economy is on pace to grow at nearly 8 percent in 2011, 42 percent of the population still depend on agriculture as their primary source of income.

After a period when the top contending parties were running fairly close to each other, Pheu Thai, operating under the slogan "Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts," has started to pull away in recent days, according to opinion polls which show the opposition party winning the backing of 41 percent of the electorate against 37 percent for the Democrats. An ABAC poll conducted by the Assumption Business Administration College Research Center of 2,300 respondents in 17 provinces indicated that Yingluck and Pheu Thai were pulling voters from the large pool of undecideds. Conversely, according to the ABAC poll, Abhisit's support was seen to be declining after the end of the first week of campaigning.

The ABAC Poll showed Abhisit's leadership index had seen a drop in all aspects, especially among younger voters despite an intensive campaign to woo voters including subsidies for diesel and food staples, an income guarantee scheme for poor farmers in the Northeastern section of the country, universal education of students up to the age of 15 and lots of other election friendly goodies.

Thailand's polls are not considered to be particularly accurate, and indeed allow for a 7 percent margin of error. With two weeks to go before the election, it is possible that the situation could change. Korn Chatikavanij, the Finance Minister, acknowledged to reporters that the Democrats are running behind at the moment. It appears more likely that neither of the parties will pull an outright majority, leaving it likely that Thailand again will be ruled by a coalition. Neither of the two biggest splinter parties, Bhum Jai Thai and Chart Thai Pattana, pulls much more than 3 percent of the vote with about 6 percent undecided, according to the Suan Dusit Poll of May 31.

That leaves open the question, as it did in 2008, whether Thailand's powerful military will force minority parties into a coalition to deny Pheu Thai the power to run the government. Anuphong Poachinda, then the army commander, at that time reportedly pressured many of the Thaksin surrogate People's Power Party members of parliament to defect to the Democrats, along with Bhum Jai Thai, headed by Newin Chidchob, to pave the way for Abhisit's election as premier. Newin's thirst to play power broker as he did in 2008 is on full display.

Most observers believe the military will not countenance a scenario that would bring Thaksin back to the country under any circumstances. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the tough-talking Army chief on June 15, appeared on an army-controlled television station to warn voters to not pick "the same thing in the July 3 election, a reference to the fact that in the four previous elections the voters have picked parties allied with Thaksin.

The voters, however, may be in no mood to tolerate yet another attempt by the military to block the opposition from power. The last three pro-Thaksin governments have been driven from power, either by coups or court actions. A long period of political unrest followed, culminating in May 2010, when tens of thousands of Red Shirt opposition forces occupied the center of Bangkok, resulting in a military crackdown that left 92 people dead, almost all of them protesters, before they were put to flight – after setting one of the city's most prominent department stores alight.

Prayuth is "clearly trying to set some of the ideological groundwork for possible intervention if that proves necessary," Andrew Walker, a professor at Australian National University in Canberra told Bloomberg. "It's hard to see them accepting a Pheu Thai government when the prime ministerial candidate is so transparently a proxy for Thaksin."

Yingluck herself has said she would grant amnesty to everybody including her brother and to allow his return from exile. The government seized US$2 billion of Thaksin's fortune in the wake of his trial. She has also said she would grant amnesty to the generals who perpetrated the 2006 coup and the events that ensued. Few in the military are prepared to believe that.

The bigger problem is that it appears that the glue that has held together the disparate elements of Thai society for generations – the royalty – appears to have lost any ability to influence the situation. With the army increasingly belligerent and openly displaying its intent to continue to run the country, the potential for violence is regarded as on the increase. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now frail and ailing, called the military and warring politicians into his presence on television during 1992 unrest and forced them to stop. But the king has been hospitalized for months and many feel he is unlikely ever to recover. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has been characterized in US diplomatic cables made public by the Wikileaks organization as unfit to lead. It is questionable if the royalty can ever again exercised its previous sway.

With the royalty paralyzed, it appears there is little to keep the disparate elements of the society from each others' throats. Prayuth, in his television address, hinted that any threats to the monarchy would probably be met with force. The website Political Prisoners in Thailand lists more than 300 people charged with various offenses revolving around insulting the monarchy. Asia Sentinel

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