Democracy in south-east Asia: Advance of the Dharma army

The prime minister of Thailand, left, is facing an uprising of the urban middle classes, enraged by allegations of cronyism and corruption. As tens of thousands take to the streets, south-east Asia correspondent Jan McGirk reports
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The Independent Online

A snaking mass of people makes its way slowly but purposefully down a tree-lined boulevard in central Bangkok, chanting and singing as it goes. The protesters come in all shapes and sizes; city workers in suits, young people waving the national red, white and blue flag, young mothers cradling banner-bedecked babies in their arms. They all have one thing in mind: " Thaksin get out!" they bellow repeatedly. "Thaksin get out!" The noise of dissent echoes around the square in front of the capital's ornate Government House.

The slogan may lack subtlety, but it certainly packs a punch. As do the banners, depicting the Thai prime minister variously as a scowling, horn-crowned devil, an overweight bureaucrat munching on Thailand's national flag and even the odd Adolf Hitler with a swastika emblazoned on his forehead. The message of the protesters who yesterday gathered in the capital was deafeningly clear. They have had enough of their flamboyant leader - and they're not going until he does.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the target of these increasingly large and regular demonstrations, could be forgiven for musing on how quickly things can change. Barely a year ago, he sailed to a second landslide election victory and was welcomed back into office by voters who regarded him as the man who had made their country the south-east Asian beacon of financial stability.

When Mr Thaksin first came to power in 2001, Thailand was nursing wounds from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, but its tiger economy quickly rebounded under the new leader, whose popularity reached its zenith. The country, with its pristine shores and relatively stable politics, gained a deserved reputation as prime tourist destination for wealthy Westerners. Its civilian, democratically elected government won respect for its efforts to modernise and turn its back on a recent history characterised by coups, infighting and widespread popular discontent.

But the past two years have not, contrary to expectations, been Thailand's best. In early 2004, a decades-old separatist struggle in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces - which had abated in the 1980s - flared up again, claiming more than 1,000 lives. Then, on Boxing Day 2004, nature dealt a huge blow to the country's economy when the tsunami devastated its beaches and killed thousands. The crucial tourist industry is only just starting to recover.

Despite these problems, the prime minister, from a humble family of silk merchants whose entrepreneurial instincts have made him one of Asia's richest men, remained unscathed. Indeed, his carefully finessed emergency response to the tsunami sealed his reelection in the 2005 election.

But his much-heralded second term has been marred by a string of political and financial scandals which have enraged many of those who voted him back into office and led to the current crisis in which Mr Thaksin, like his beleaguered counterpart in the Philippines, President Gloria Arroyo, now finds himself. The tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets yesterday have become a familiar feature of the Bangkok cityscape since prime minister dissolved parliament last month ahead of a snap election.

Mr Thaksin remains popular in vast areas of the countryside where the rural poor thank him for doling out cheap medical care and low-interest loans, but he is facing an uprising of the urban middle classes. He has even been criticised in public by the venerated monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The powerful movement to topple him is being orchestrated by a man who Thaksin once called a friend and another he once called his mentor.Chamlong Srimuang, a former governor of Bangkok and a senior member of the anti-government Santi Asoke sect, also known as the Dharma Army, is probably the premier's most formidable enemy.

Chamlong's pro-democracy demonstrators forced out a military-backed government back in 1992 in a bloody confrontation that killed 50 people and he is determined that his latest foray into street politics yields peaceful results. His opposition is a particularly bitter pill for Mr Thaksin, as it was Chamlong who introduced the prime minister to politics and who for years guided his progress. Now, he is urging his protégé to stand down. "The government is using taxpayers' money to shore up its sinking popularity," he said recently, adding that his own biggest blunder was bringing Thaksin into Thailand's politics, akin to "releasing a troll from a dungeon. The time is now ripe to bring the giant back to the den and lock him up," he said.

But Chamlong is not the only friend-turned-foe shouting for the prime minister's resignation. For months leading up to yesterday's march, another critic, Sondhi Limthongkul, who once praised the economic wizardry of " Thaksinomics", has been mounting anti-Thaksin rallies in Bangkok's Lumphini Park, drawing crowds of after-work listeners to hear him decry the government's abuses of power. (These include shutting down a popular talk show hosted by the vociferous Sondhi himself.)

The crisis has been brewing for some time. Successive waves of anti-government protests have threatened to topple the billionaire telecoms tycoon since shares of his giant family firm, Shin Corp, were sold to the Singapore government investment house, Temasek, for a tax-free windfall profit of $1.9bn.

Thaksin's son Panthongtae, 27, was recently fined for not declaring all his assets. Public tolerance for the first family's financial finagling now appears to be stretched to the limit - at least on university campuses and inside Bangkok. The appeal of a tycoon leader with globalised ethics appears to be on the wane.

To gain a bit of room for manoeuvre, Mr Thaksin has called a snap election on 2 April, three years earlier than required by law. Opposition parties are intending to boycott these hasty polls, while some protestors prefer to submit blank ballot papers to show their contempt.

Since the Shin Corp scandal hit the headlines, the prime minister's approval rating has plummeted from 78 to 34 per cent. Opponents point to nepotism, blatant cronyism and conflicts of interest, charging that the current administration, although the first civilian government ever to complete a four-year term, has muzzled most of the media through threatened defamation lawsuits or its advertising clout and has so intimidated the judiciary that the Constitutional Court's proposed investigation into wrong-doing was a complete non-starter. But the perception that the richest family in the nation - Mr Thaksin is often compared to Italy's premier Silvio Berlusconi - has bent corporate law and dodged taxes has riled the middle class.

When Mr Thaksin, a brash ex-police officer educated at Sam Houston University, Texas , first took office in 2001, his popularity was somewhat undermined by allegations of cronyism. His cousin, General Chaisit Shinawatra, was appointed army chief and then supreme commander of the combined armed forces, while his brother-in-law Priawpan Damapong acts as deputy chief of the national police. Despite his highhandedness, Prime Minister Thaksin was allowed great latitude. But allegations of insider trading in the Shin Corp deal, which elevated the family into the ranks of the billionaires, abruptly burst the protective bubble which had kept critics silent. On the eve of the sale, Thaksin's son and daughter bought an 11 per cent stake in Shin from an offshore company aptly called Ample Rich for just one baht (2.5 cents) a share, then sold it to the Temasek-led group for a near 50-fold profit. The authorities ruled the deal legitimate.

Though the Prime Minister personally adhered to the letter of the law, this sale has raised concerns among many Thais, not least nationalists, who don't want a major utility comprising mobile phones, broadband internet, satellites, and even a budget airline in the hands of a foreign power.

Mr Thaksin, in an avuncular mood during one weekly radio address, insisted that these shares were sold off because "the kids would like their dad to devote himself completely to politics". But, however dire the prognosis might seem, few people seriously believe that the political career of Thailand's most adroit businessman is dead in the water. "That Thaksin has more moves than a one-legged crab," marvelled Nok Jareonsri, a cashier at a Silom bar. The 56-year-old prime minister has shown a canny knack of scuttling away from crises and deflecting concerns about alleged human rights abuses, his initial cover-up of avian flu outbreaks, and cackhanded attempts to staunch separatist bloodshed in the south.

Suspected extra-judicial killings of at least 2,500 alleged drug dealers during Thaksin's national anti-drugs campaign worried rights activists around the world, but most Thais hailed this zero -tolerance approach to drugs control and Mr Thaksin's popularity soared. Even the heavy-handed killing of 100 Muslim insurgents in a single day in April 2004 , including 32 who were besieged in a mosque, did little to mar Thaksin's image as a strong leader. When criticism of his handling of the southern separatists began to grow, the wily businessman proposed purchasing a £60m stake in Liverpool Football Club, and the legality of raising funds through a state lottery pushed the southern conflict off the news bulletins.

To the political class in Bangkok, Mr Thaksin has always been viewed as an outsider. But thanks to his rural support, the consensus is that Thaksin will win the April elections. One thing, though, is for sure. Mr Thaksin's political future will not come without a fight. Perhaps the ring tone on Sondhi's mobile phone says it all: a voice shrieking "Thaksin Get OUT!" And, as the streets of Bangkok continue to reverberate with the same cry, it may only be a matter of time before that command is, albeit grudgingly, obeyed.