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'Texan' Thai PM Plans To Follow In Bush Footsteps

'Texan' Thai PM Plans To Follow In Bush Footsteps


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra boasts he and U.S. President George Bush "are both Texans", and following the success of his superpower ally, expects to be re-elected on Sunday (Feb. 6).

There are other similarities: Mr. Thaksin and Mr. Bush are leading their own, out-of-control fight against Muslim insurgents, and are enforcing a deadly war on drugs.

And both men promise four more years.

After tsunamis hit Thailand's west coast on Dec. 26, killing more than 5,300 people, Thais predicted the disaster would boost Mr. Thaksin because he was seen in the media leading rescue and relief efforts.

"Who else is there to vote for?" said one exasperated professional woman when asked if she wanted Mr. Thaksin, 55, re-elected.

"Thailand is like a jig-saw puzzle, and Thaksin is the only one who has the missing pieces," a taxi driver said, lamenting that the squabbling opposition offered minor, lackluster candidates.

"If we elect a different party and a different leader, they will have to start the puzzle all over again, and have to find all the pieces. We have no choice but to keep Thaksin," he said.

Mr. Thaksin (pronounced: "Tock-sin") was expected to easily win Sunday's general election.

The only intrigue is how many of Parliament's 500 seats his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party will score.

In 2001, when Mr. Thaksin was elected, his new party won 255 seats. But he lured smaller parties into a coalition, so together they dominated 326 seats by the end of Parliament's four-year term.

If his Thai Rak Thai party wins 375 seats on its own, Mr. Thaksin could operate as a virtual one-party government -- prompting worry among opponents who fear he is an authoritarian achieving too much power.

Mr. Thaksin is a nationalist, capitalist, and populist.

In this majority Buddhist, Southeast Asian country, that translates to domination against minority ethnic Malay Muslims in the south, indifference to the rights of the poor, and gimmick-filled shows of giving money to villages to gain their loyalty without caring that the cash gets wasted by corrupt or inefficient people, according to Mr. Thaksin's detractors.

His supporters cheer his so-called "C.E.O. style" of governing Thailand as if it were a corporation, based on his successful massing of more than a billion U.S. dollars for his family by heading a telecommunications empire.

His populist policies will give educational opportunities to more children, boost the economy of small-scale businesses, loosen credit, and increase health care, his supporters say.

They also endorse his bloody "war on drugs" which has left more than 2,500 people dead in the streets since 2003.

The government insisted most of the dead were drug dealers and smugglers who killed each other in rivalries and to prevent informants going to the police.

International and Thai human rights groups said the deaths included a large number of people shot by police in "extrajudicial killings" to satisfy the government's demand to create "drug-free provinces", and often resulted in innocent people being executed.

Mr. Thaksin's biggest failure, critics contend, is a worsening insurgency in the south where some Islamic fundamentalists want greater autonomy, or independence, amid complaints in the Muslim-majority region that they often suffer discrimination, imprisonment, torture and execution.

In October, the Thai army arrested 1,300 Muslim demonstrators at Tak Bai, tied their hands behind their backs, and forced them to lay face down in army trucks -- piled one on top of the other, four or five layers high.

Forensic teams discovered 78 men died of suffocation while in the trucks, and another six people were shot dead during the Tak Bai demonstration which was called to demand the release of six innocent Muslims.

Stung by the insurgents' shootings, bombings and arson attacks in the three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, Mr. Thaksin insisted he wants to woo Muslims toward peaceful reconciliation, but needs an estimated 20,000 troops in the south to hunt anyone suspected of threatening Thailand's sovereignty.

"Thai people have known me for four years, so it doesn't matter what critics say," Mr. Thaksin said, according to a government-controlled news report on Thursday (Feb. 3).

"Ultimately, it's the people who judge what they get out of the government's four years in office," he said.

Mr. Thaksin is a staunch admirer of President Bush.

"We are both Texans and have a Texas style of leadership," Mr. Thaksin told applauding American businessmen in Bangkok on Dec. 16.

"We are both Texas cowboys," he said at the luncheon hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Thaksin was formerly a police officer and received a Master's degree in Criminal Justice at Eastern Kentucky University, and a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

The main opposition Democrat Party meanwhile was focusing attention on its southern stronghold and hoped to attain a total of 80 seats.

The smaller Chart Thai party incorporated a notorious massage parlor owner, Chuwit Kamolvisit, as a candidate in Bangkok, and presented him in huge advertisements wielding a sledge hammer as his symbol against corruption.

The image did not amuse some Bangkok residents who remember Mr. Chuwit allegedly bulldozing a city street of bars, souvenir shops and other small businesses -- causing overnight economic losses -- during his personal feud with real estate developers.

"Vote buying" -- a perennial problem in Thailand -- has reportedly continued during this campaign with some parties allegedly giving the equivalent of five to 10 U.S. dollars to individuals, in exchange for their vote.

Thai society emphasizes loyalty and obedience to hierarchy. Many people who receive money from candidates will vote for them, even though others suggest pocketing the cash and voting for someone else.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, but power is dispensed by a National Assembly or Parliament, which includes a 200-seat Senate or Upper House, plus a 500-seat House of Representatives, or Lower House.

Sunday's general election allows nearly 45 million eligible voters to install a new House of Representatives from more than 20 parties.

Of the 500 to be chosen, 400 are elected from single-seat constituencies. An additional 100 winners result from proportional representation, based on the percentage of votes each party receives nationwide.

"There is no question in the minds of most observers that [Mr. Thaksin's] Thai Rak Thai party will emerge the overwhelming winner on Sunday," the Bangkok Post said in a Thursday (Jan. 3) editorial.

*************

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-


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