x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Army chief weighs in against ruling party

Thai Prime minister is under pressure to resign following the police action against anti-government protesters and also the Cambodian border skirmish.

Thailand's army chief has entered the political fray by attacking the legitimacy of the ruling party, saying the prime minister should resign over the fatal clashes between anti-government protesters and police that killed two people in Bangkok on Oct 7 2008. Since the 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister, the military's words have weighed heavy in the country, but this is the first time Gen Anupong Paochinda has broken his image of neutrality in public. If Somchai Wongsawat, the current prime minister and Mr Thaksin's brother-in-law, capitulates to pressure from the military and resigns, he would be the second leader of the People's Power Party to fall in the past month after his predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, was toppled by a court ruling that cited a conflict of interest after he conducted two cooking shows while serving as prime minister. Another court case is seeking the dissolution of the party itself on charges of vote tampering in the last election. The PPP leaders link their litany of troubles directly to an anti-Thaksin campaign. "The coup took place two years ago just to destroy the pro-Thaksin groups, those that supported the Thai Rak Thai before," said Kudeb Saikrajang, a PPP spokesman. "They could not destroy us right after the coup. When they brought back democracy the PPP won the election, so the plan continues." Another party, Peua Thai, has already been created as a surrogate if the PPP founders in the courts. There was even speculation in the Thai media that last Wednesday's border skirmish between Cambodia and Thailand was related to Mr Thaskin. Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, may have done his old ally a favour, according to this theory, in taking a bellicose stance over the border temple Preah Vihear, over which the two countries have squabbled for decades, by diverting attention from the plight of Mr Thaksin's allies in government and the ruling party. The PPP swept to power in the first elections held after the 2006 coup. It was established after the party that Mr Thaksin founded, Thai Rak Thai, translated as "Thais Love Thais", was dissolved by the courts in 2007, and many TRT politicians clambered on board the new political vehicle. The opposition Democrats say Mr Thaksin could solve the political crisis, focusing on alleged corruption and his five outstanding arrest warrants. "What he is trying to do is basically get the government that is acting on his behalf to do everything in its power to avert the cause of justice," said Korn Chatikavanij, the deputy leader of the Democrats. Both sides agree, however, that Mr Thaksin remains a pivotal figure on the political stage, two years after he was forced out of office and two months after he fled the country as a fugitive. There are several reasons behind this tenacious grip on the political psyche, including Mr Thaksin's personal wealth, undeniable popularity in areas of the country and his continued participation in the struggle for power. Mr Thaksin is exceedingly rich; before entering politics, he made his fortune in the country's largest mobile phone service provider, Advanced Info Services, which benefited from sweetheart deals with state-owned telecom monopolies not available to his competitors. The tipping point was the sale of AIS's parent company to Singapore for about US$1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) in 2006. The TRT-dominated parliament amended rules on foreign ownership that went into effect the same day as the sale. Allegations of corruption were compounded by the Thaksin family's windfall, and the deception that allowed them to avoid paying tax on the deal. Moreover, when Abu Dhabi United Group bought the Premier League club Manchester City from Mr Thaksin, the deal was estimated to be worth at least ?98 million (Dh484m). "Clearly he is still extremely wealthy with the assets that he spirited offshore," Mr Korn said. "We don't know the full extent, but it is certainly more than sufficient for him to continue to finance the political party that is clearly acting on his behalf." In Thailand, money buys votes, literally as well as through more conventional campaign financing. Minor parties are paid to join coalitions and there is a political culture across the board where affluent politicians who fail to give handouts are considered stingy. Mr and Mrs Thaksin regularly doled out 1,000 baht (Dh107) notes to the general public. Mr Thaksin has been one of the most popular politicians in Thai history, with Thai Rak Thai having won elections by record margins. He did not simply buy the allegiance of the working class outside the capital from his personal coffers, he launched a raft of development schemes ranging from village lending funds to universal health care. The economic merits were debated, but the loyalty engendered is undeniabwle. Opposition leaders in the Democrat Party admit they would probably lose an election held today against a "Thaksin" party. "It is definitely the case that he retains a very significant level of popularity within a very large number of the Thai population especially in the north and north-east," Mr Korn said. "We would be at a disadvantage, everybody would tell you that." There are conflicting accounts, however, about the direct hand Mr Thaksin exerts on current events. The former prime minister, Mr Samak, initially described himself as a "nominee" for Mr Thaksin before angrily denying the same. Mr Somchai was widely considered a more statesmanlike choice for the post despite his familial ties, but leading PPP figures are reported to have travelled to London to vet his cabinet with Mr Thaksin when he took power. The PPP maintains Mr Thaksin's sway is indirect. "He cannot be directly involved, but of course he is influential and his influence remains in Thai politics. I don't think he can send money directly to any political party, but he can help facilitate assistance for politicians, that's why many politicians still believe that they don't want to leave him," Mr Kudeb said. jschertz@thenational.ae