Thailand's Prime Minister, a 'Caretaker' on a Roll

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 16, 2006

BANGKOK -- In the trunk of the now infamous gray Daewoo found near Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's urban mansion late last month was a bomb with a bit of everything. Weighing more than 10 pounds and packed with C4 explosives, military detonators and two sticks of dynamite with short fuses, it was hardly inconspicuous.

Little wonder that Thaksin's detractors immediately labeled him a fraud, charging his camp with orchestrating a fake assassination attempt to curry sympathy with voters ahead of elections. Bangkok newspapers ran endless satires on the episode involving the man they have come to call "Thug Sin."

The true nature of the bomb plot is still under police investigation, but eyebrows have been raised in part because the case's key suspect -- the car's driver, Lt. Thawatchai Klinchana -- is allegedly close to one of Thaksin's own military advisers. Additionally, no clear motive has emerged.

Whatever the case, Thaksin's critics concede that any public sympathy generated by the alleged plot is only one of their problems. Despite significant political turmoil over the past several months, the prime minister remains highly popular among a majority of Thais.

Following "people power" protests and the opposition's boycott of elections in April, Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon first elected in a 2001 landslide, pledged to take a break from politics. In the interim, though, he has become Thailand's "caretaker prime minister."

His political future is unclear. Many observers, including key members of the opposition, acknowledge that the anti-Thaksin demonstrations in the spring did not represent the majority opinion in the country. Rather, poor and rural Thais -- the single largest group of voters -- have benefited during Thaksin's tenure and remain firmly in his camp.

Sensing this, Thaksin and his supporters have become far more coy about whether he intends to keep his promise to give up the prime minister's job. Some in his ruling Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais, party have suggested that Thaksin has effectively fulfilled his pledge to take a temporary break from governing by serving in a caretaker role for five months.

Elections scheduled for Oct. 15 are now expected to be postponed until November or later.

"The prime minister will still be the head of the Thai Rak Thai party, and he will still lead the list of party candidates," Prommin Lertsuridej, Thaksin's top aide, said in an interview. "But whether he will accept another term is still under consideration." Prommin later said that "a small group of doctors, of intellectuals" want the prime minister out of office. But if the majority want him, he added, "who are the real supporters of democracy here?"

Thaksin's popularity stems in part from a series of successful policy initiatives -- including his decision to offer government-funded micro-loans to poor villagers as well as low-cost health care, from flu shots to open-heart surgery, to the neediest Thais.

Thaksin's opponents insist that his enduring popularity has been won through "giveaway" politics. They say his party has doled out food and cash to poor voters. Worse, they contend, he has corrupted Thai democracy by monopolizing coverage on the television, a medium in which many outlets are controlled by the government or Thaksin supporters.

The Bangkok-based Abac Poll Research Center of Assumption University released a study this month showing that Thaksin's party receives almost seven times more television news coverage than the Democrat Party, the leading opposition party.

"How is it possible for us to take part in democracy when the people don't even know who we are?" said Korbsak Sabhavasu, the Democrat Party treasurer. "The poor and the farmers, they do not read Bangkok newspapers. They watch television, and all they see is Thaksin. That is not democracy. That is manipulation."

One thing everyone appears to agree with is that Thailand needs a viable leader -- and fast. As the power vacuum lingers in the capital, Islamic separatists in the south are waging an increasingly violent insurgency. On Aug. 31, the separatists were blamed for setting off 22 bombs almost simultaneously in banks across Thailand's southernmost provinces in one of the single largest attacks since fighting surged two years ago. Although only one person was killed, analysts say the bombings were clearly intended to sever the south's financial lifelines to more prosperous Bangkok.

The lingering constitutional crisis and mounting insurgency led former prime minister Anand Panyarachun to declare last week that the nation was at risk of becoming a "failed state."

"We cannot go on with this uncertainty," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "It is one of the factors allowing the insurgency to continue in the south. Thailand needs resolution and solutions, and they cannot wait."

For that reason, all parties involved are pressing for the soonest possible date for elections -- an issue likely to be decided soon by a new election committee recently purged by the courts of Thaksin's underlings. If Thaksin wins another landslide victory, however, Thailand may end up back where it started -- with more street demonstrations and an even deeper political crisis. Some analysts say Thaksin may attempt to lead his party to victory and then voluntarily step aside -- a scenario that a few in his own party have said could be the best way out of the crisis.

On Wednesday, Chakaphan Yomchinda, a senior party member, suggested on national television that Thaksin would ultimately step down. But others insist there is no reason for Thaksin to go if the people still want him.

"If the opposition thinks he is corrupt, then take him to court and prove it," said Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin supporter and former Bangkok governor. "Democracy means the choice of the people, and if Thaksin is again elected, then who can say they know better than the people?"

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