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Thai Leader Applauded For Tsunami Response

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A21

BANGKOK -- Last Monday, when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was making one of his many visits to the tsunami-devastated south, he stopped by a Buddhist temple in Takua Pa that had been turned into a morgue. He put on a powder blue surgical mask and rubber gloves to tour the grounds. He gave a spirited pep talk to volunteers who came to help. And he even stopped to help two French rescue workers who had just arrived in Thailand from Paris but were having a hard time finding anyone to take up their offer to help.

"Come with me!" he said in English, leading the two firemen by the arm and introducing them to a Thai Interior Ministry official. Then after a briefing from the country's top forensics expert, and an on-the-go news conference for a knot of journalists, he was off again by helicopter to the next ravaged site.

That kind of frenetic, hands-on activism in the midst of one of the worst natural disaster in his country's history has earned Thaksin plaudits even from some of his critics. After what seemed an initially slow response to the disaster -- some foreign tourists and Thais said that no rescue vehicles or helicopters appeared for the first few hours after the waves slammed ashore -- Thaksin has taken personal charge of the recovery and relief effort, overseeing virtually all aspects of the operation like the corporate chief executive he once was.

In the process, Thaksin may have cemented his standing as the favorite in national elections on Feb. 6. His Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which won a landslide in 2001, was already expected to maintain its majority in parliament. Now, say analysts, the party looks unassailable and will probably increase its majority. Thaksin may emerge as Thailand's most powerful democratically elected prime minister.

"Thaksin is going to ride the tsunami into a landslide victory," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University. "After the first week, the catastrophe has become an opportunity for him. He would have won anyway with a comfortable majority. Now we're looking at a one-party government."

"He did do a good job," said Thitinan. "In situations like this, people look for calm, they look for leadership, and Thaksin showed this in the first week. It's his CEO management style that benefited him -- it allowed him to be hands-on from the very beginning."

He said Thaksin's penchant for concentrating government power in his office, which many critics call authoritarianism, may have helped him coordinate the rescue and relief efforts, while his tight control of most of Thailand's media has allowed him to hold the limelight throughout the tsunami crisis.

As a result, Thailand's response to the tsunami, compared with that of other governments in the region, has been a model of organization and efficiency, according to many analysts. "In general, I think the government did well," agreed Amara Pongsapich, dean of the political science department at Chulalongkorn. "I think the government responded quickly. And the opposition has had no chance to make an impact."

It was Thaksin who on day two of the disaster announced to the nation the death of the grandson of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the tsunami. Thaksin has spoken daily of the casualty count, preparing Thais for the prospect that many missing may not be found. He has issued what are probably the most forceful calls for an Asian leader for establishment of a tsunami warning system. He has acted as cheerleader-in-chief for the tourist resort of Phuket, promising residents and business owners that he would move quickly to make the island "even better than it was before."

Thaksin defused what initially seemed like a potential embarrassment, if not an outright scandal. In the first days after the tsunami hit, the Nation newspaper reported that the government's meteorological department received notice that a strong earthquake had hit Sumatra, and knew of the possibility of the waves but failed to issue an alert, possibly for fear of disrupting the peak tourism season.

But the potential scandal appeared to subside when Thaksin became the main figure demanding publicly to know why no alert was given, and then set up a new top-level panel to develop a tsunami early warning system. This week, he temporarily removed the head of the weather bureau pending an investigation into why his department failed to issue a warning.

The first opinion poll to appear since the tsunami crisis, a survey of 1,288 people appearing in Tuesday's Bangkok Post, found that 54 percent of respondents said they liked Thaksin more since the tsunami crisis hit.

Those results seem to bode ill for the opposition Democrat Party, which had hoped to improve on its performance in 2001, when it won just 128 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. Some Democrat Party officials have suggested the elections be delayed by a month, to allow the country more time to heal from the tragedy. In another sign of the opposition's despair, at least five party heavyweights have decided they won't run for re-election.

Thaksin may gain from the fact that the waves struck a region which, like the capital Bangkok, has not been friendly to him. Southern Thailand's Buddhists have tended to side with the Democrats, as have its Muslims, who form a majority in three provinces. Muslims have become furious over his handling of a Muslim separatist uprising in parts of the south in which about 500 people have died in the past year.

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