ASIA HAND Fluid loyalties, obscure intentions in Thailand
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Four months after self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's protest group fired rhetorical broadsides at Thailand's royal family, his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra opened her prime ministerial tenure with praise and respect for the same royal institution. The discrepant signals underscore the divergent interest groups now under Thaksin's political umbrella and whose push and pull will determine largely the stability and longevity of Yingluck's new government.
The appointment of Yingluck's cabinet signaled a conciliatory course by sidelining the radical "red shirt" protest leaders whose rally cries last year for early elections helped pave her way to
power but whose firebrand criticism of the royalist establishment is seen as a political liability to her reconciliation agenda. None of the protest group's leaders who won office on Thaksin's and Yingluck's Puea Thai party list was selected to her 35-seat ministerial line-up.
Instead, Yingluck's maiden speech as prime minister emphasized the need for Thais to rally around King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his 84th birthday celebrations scheduled for this December. In the same address, she quoted at length from one of the widely revered monarch's speeches, saying Bhumibol's unifying example would serve as her "guiding light" as national leader. Yingluck's appeal to royal righteousness is indicative of the accommodation reached behind the scenes between Thaksin, the royal palace and military top brass ahead of last month's general elections. (See The deal behind Thailand's polls Asia Times Online, June 30.)
According to sources familiar with the talks, the military agreed to allow Puea Thai to form a new elected government unopposed in exchange for a Thaksin promise to rein in his camp's anti-monarchy element and resist intervention in military affairs, including the upcoming annual reshuffle that determines the army's leadership. Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a member of the elite Queen's Guard, is eligible to serve three more years in his position and viewed as the palace's preferred soldier to help manage the eventual succession from Bhumibol to heir apparent Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.
Yingluck's pro-royal signals may also be interpreted as an early bid to reconcile opposed political camps and rehabilitate her brother's suspect royalist credentials, one of the reasons military coup-makers cited for staging the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin's then caretaker government. Some analysts have portrayed Thailand's subsequent conflict of competing street movements and judicial coups as pitting pro- and anti-royalist camps, a characterization Thaksin has contested but his aligned protest group intimated in its speeches, media and street graffiti.
While loyalties and intentions are still obscure and fluid, Yingluck has emphasized she will give top priority to achieving national reconciliation. Apart from the pre-election deal brokered with the military and palace, Thaksin has reportedly sent emissaries of conciliation on at least two recent occasions to meet with leaders of the pro-royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group, according to people familiar with the situation. The PAD's street protests paved the way for Thaksin's 2006 ouster and crippled the workings of two of his aligned governments in 2008.
Yet there are already concerns that if Yingluck pushes too hard, too fast for a political amnesty that both absolves the military and outgoing Abhisit Vejjajiva government of responsibility for last year's armed crackdown on protestors and allows the criminally convicted Thaksin to return to Thailand as a free man the move could spark new bouts of instability or even a military coup. So, too, could any move to pardon the handful of Thaksin-aligned activists who have been charged or sentenced to prison for lese majeste.
Government as family business
Her pace will be determined largely by how power is shared and exercised between Thaksin, who is legally banned from politics until May 2012 and currently a fugitive from Thai justice, and Yingluck, a political novice who rose rapidly through the corporate ranks of Thaksin's family business but is unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of Thai factional politics. Thaksin has already said he would like to return to Thailand in November to attend his daughter's wedding.
Thaksin famously referred to Yingluck as his "clone" during the election campaign and local media reports indicated Puea Thai faction leaders traveled to Dubai to lobby Thaksin for ministerial portfolios in the new government. Yingluck has denied Thaksin was involved in selecting her cabinet but it's already become clear to most observers that her team of political advisors is carefully managing her public image and tightly scripting her speeches.
"It's being run like a family business where Thaksin is chairman of the board and Yingluck is the CEO," said one well-connected diplomat who recently paid a courtesy call to the new premier. "It will be rule by committee where advisors take the lead on day-to-day management, Thaksin provides the strategic direction and Yingluck is the photogenic figurehead - just like a corporation."
Yingluck's advocates believe her mild-mannered temperament and management-by-delegation style represents a hopeful antidote to her hard-charging brother, whose divide-and-rule tactics and penchant for antagonism spawned political enemies and contributed to his military downfall. With the global economy tipping towards recession, Yingluck's ambitious populist spending plans will likely receive less critical scrutiny and open the way for the many patronage politicians in her cabinet to profit from their portfolios.
At the same time, there are doubts among the diplomatic community that Yingluck has the stature or competence to manage such a high-powered and potentially treacherous post. One senior Western diplomat who met with Yingluck after the election said her replies to his questions lacked coherence even after conferring with her three top advisors before replying to every one of his queries. A similar disconnect between question and answer is evident in several of her Thai and English language press interviews, according to journalists.
One area where her government will require coherence is in its management of military affairs. Her appointed defense minister, General Yuthasak Sasiprapa, said on Wednesday that he had no plans to remove any armed forces commanders after he officially assumed his post. Analysts believe his working relationship with army commander Prayuth and approach to military reshuffles will be key to future stability.
Yuthasak, the son-in-law of former military dictator Prapat Chrusathien and a board member of several prominent Thai corporations, is perceived by diplomats to be more business-driven than politically-minded and unlikely to unseat Prayuth or his top deputies.
Nor does his appointment signal impending military reform: while serving as deputy defense minister in 2004, Yuthasak was implicated in a 1 billion baht (US$32.7 million) helicopter spare parts bidding scandal but was later acquitted of the charges. His family has interests in a Bangkok-based Sasiprapa Thai boxing gym that has trained and dispatched heavies for debt collection, including for certain Macau casinos, according to a private investigator who recently probed his family's business background.
Any indication that Yingluck's administration is padding rather than clipping the military's interests after years of ballooning budgets and political meddling at Thaksin's expense could raise tensions with the "red shirt" parliamentarians who have called for military reform and justice for the military's lethal crackdown last year on their protest. Whether the activists-cum-politicians press those demands or go quiet amid the privilege and protection of parliament will determine largely if future instability comes from inside or outside Yingluck's government.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.
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