Thailand’s BIG problem

Thailand is a great place to live, but there have always been some underlying problems with corruption. It permeates all segments of society and has existed in various forms for hundreds of years. Money is power in this society. It works for you if you have it, against you if you don’t.

Updated September 21, 2006 

By L. Wheeler

For hundreds of years, Thailand had a system whereby representatives of the King, called ‘Khunnangs’ were assigned ministries to control. The Khunnang could keep 10% of whatever was collected, and 5% would go into the royal treasury. As time passed, the Khunnangs became more and more powerful to the point where even the King had little control over them. The Khunnangs were keeping more than the 10% and the 5% to the King was rarely paid.

Today

Today, this system has been officially changed, but in reality, the system of ‘skimming off the top’ has continued and expanded into all segments of society. It has expanded to include getting preferential services in government offices, getting government contracts and even getting your child enrolled in ‘good’ schools. As an example, police all over Thailand set up roadblocks with the main intention being to extort money from people for real or imagined offences. Rarely though, is a Mercedes or other type of car belonging to someone possibly rich pulled over and forced to pay bribes to police on the street. The risk of retaliation from the ‘big people’ is too great. From the street, the money gets passed up through the ranks, with each person taking a piece of the pie. One more example. In order to get accepted in almost any good school, parents are required to pay ‘tea money’ to get their child enrolled. No tea money, no enrollment. And in a country where, even in kindergarten, the school you came from will greatly affect your future, parents with money will pay to get into the right school.

An enormous amount of money is paid in bribes and kickbacks, but up until now, this has not really affected the life of middle-income or rich Thai people very much. The economy had been strong, and it seemed that there was plenty of money to go around. Many Thai people saw the pay-offs as being an investment in their personal future.

This has all changed in the last few years. Ignoring warnings that the financial management of the country was becoming a serious problem, corrupt people in the government continued stuffing their pockets and just ignored the health of the country. A succession of governments have come and gone in the last few years, all establishing themselves as more corrupt and incompetent than the last. Each successive government would blame the last government for the country’s problems, even though most of the same people in the current government had served in the last. The Thai people waited, hoping that things would get better.

In November, 1996, an inside ‘coup’ of sorts occurred in the Barnharn government. Chavalit Yongchaiyud, who was the Defence Minister, forced Barnharn, through a political power play, to dissolve the government and step down as Prime Minister. A new election was called, billions of baht spent by political parties on buying votes, and Chavalit came back as the new Prime Minister. He made lots of promises and the people, though skeptical, wanted to believe that this former Army General was really going to make life better in his vision of a ‘New and Improved Democracy’. It didn’t take long to see that these words were as hollow as the words that Thai people had been listening to from the other politicians for so long. The first order of business in the new government was dividing up the ministries to the many factions within his coalition government.

Some ministries, like the Finance, Interior and Commerce ministries are considered the ‘plums’ due to the opportunities to channel vast sums of money directly into the pockets of the politicians assigned to oversee those ministries. The politicians with the most power are given the plums, with smaller, less lucrative ministries going to others. As a politician rises within his party, his assignments to more lucrative positions would follow. Absolutely no concern is given to whether a particular politician is suited to his position in terms of experience or other professional qualifications. If someone doesn’t get the position he feels he deserves, he will threaten to resign (if he is one of the party’s financial supporters) or threaten to publicly expose the ‘secrets’ of another politician. Either of these threats results in some kind of agreement being made to placate the wounded party.

With people starting to feel the effects of the failing economy through increases in the cost of living, the government continued to tell the people not to worry. They suggested that Thai people buy Thai products and not imported products as a way to help the economy. Of course, those same people continued to buy Mercedes and continue their high-living. During this period, the banking industry was starting to show the effects of its poor management and corrupt practices. First we saw the Bangkok Bank of Commerce scandal. The BBC had been giving loans to politicians and accepting vastly over-valued land as collateral. When the politicians had problems making payments, they would refinance the loan with new properties they had acquired. It first came to light when some property owners in Nong Khai complained that they had either been forced through threats to sell their land at very low prices, or that their signatures had been forged to show that they had sold their land to politicians. When further investigations showed that these lands had been used to mortgage personal loans to these politicians and that the values that the bank had established for the land were way over market value, the bubble burst, resulting in the closure of the bank and many officials arrested. But as is the way sometimes in Thailand, many people, including the main politicians involved in the scandal, escaped any punishment. The former financial advisor to the bank fled to Canada, but was arrested by Canadian authorities at Thailand’s request. After he threatened to expose the people in the government involved in the scandal, the process of trying to extradite him back to Thailand slowed to a crawl. It seemed that some people didn’t want him back in Thailand to talk.

The next thing that happened was the closing of some financial institutions, due mainly to their enormous amount of bad loans and lack of financial liquidity. This had a ripple effect in Thai society, forcing people to realize that the economy was in serious danger of collapse. But on the other side, the government continued to tell the people that the country was going to be okay and not to panic by taking their money out of the banks. Another group of bank closures followed to total 58 closures, and a run on the remaining banks ensued. Chavalit came out to try to reassure the Thai people, but by this time, his true colors were showing. He said on June 31st that the baht would not be de-valued, but two days later, he floated the baht on the open market, and it immediately lost 20% of its value. Some politicians were accused of receiving prior knowledge of the baht’s floatation, giving them enough time to buy dollars before the baht fell.

The people started to demonstrate against the government, telling Chavalit to resign. Chavalit responded by making some cosmetic changes in the cabinet, but leaving in the most corrupt and hated of the politicians. Chavalit made promises every day, but the next day they were forgotten, to be replaced by new promises. The politicians continued to stuff their pockets and threaten to bring down the government if they were removed from their posts. The people that are considered the most offensive to Thai people are Chavalit, Sanoh (Head of the Interior), Samak (Deputy PM), Chalerm (Deputy PM) and Sukumvich (Deputy PM) . The Thai people want these people to leave the government, but Chavalit has refused to consider the idea. He has shown that he is unwilling to resign and wants to stay in power as long as possible and is willing to say or do anything it takes. He is afraid to offend Sanoh because he is a main financial supporter of Chavalit’s party and also controls many party members. Sukavich’s daughter has been rumored to be Chavalit’s minor wife (officially, she is his personal spokesperson) He is afraid of Samak and Chalerm because they know so many secrets and, along with Sanoh, are considered to be very powerful Godfathers (‘Influential People’ in Thai-speak).

Chavalit’s unwillingness and inability to do what the people want or what is necessary to improve the health of the country has caused the country to slide deeper and deeper into depression. Chavalit has not been affected by threats from the military or by calls from the most respected members of society to resign. When he has felt cornered, he reacts by trying to create mobs to support him and attack the ‘communists’ that don’t support him. More than once in the last few weeks has the country teetered on the edge of anarchy. Many people actually wish the military would stage another coup, so is the frustration with Chavalit’s unresponsiveness.

At the time of this writing in October, 1997, the baht has lost more than 55% of its value. Prices in all sectors are up and in ten’s of thousand’s of cases, people have been laid-off or forced to take large salary cuts. The Thai people continue to hope for something better, but no hope is in sight at the moment. Whether the Thais will continue with hope and no action or, with their numbers, force some action to happen, remains to be seen. I also have hope, but I believe that’s not enough to change the course Thailand is heading on.

Of major importance to Thailand is continued freedom of the press. With it, the people can stay informed of what is happening. Without it, they would have to rely on only the information the government wants them to know. But freedom of the press is not enough in itself to save Thailand from its downhill slide. The Thai people must learn to take control of their country and make it work to benefit all the people- not just a few people with power to exploit others. They must take the information that the free press brings to them and act.

The time for waiting and hoping for change must end. To change a system of corruption that has been established in Thai society for hundreds of years is probably the most difficult task this country will face, but face it must if it ever wants to really make the country into something to carry all its people forward to a better life. Chavalit and his kind of Thai culture have lived long enough. It is time to retire him and all his friends and let Thailand move on to a better future.

Update Nov. 25, 1997

We now have a ‘new’ government. Actually, it’s an old government- Chuan Leekpai was PM three Governments (2 years) ago. Chavalit decided he had had enough and resigned to form a new government. He said he would only resign if he could pick the new PM, but through the wrangling that all this involved, enough of the current coalition jumped-ship to the Chuan side, making him the person to decide the new PM. He chose himself, of course.

Of the people that jumped-ship, Khun Wattana probably stands out the most. He has allegedly been a major part of the corruption in many governments, always securing a place because of his vast amount of financial resources, some say, from drugs and oil smuggling. According to published reports, tthehe U.S. has refused him entry into the U.S. due to suspected drug smuggling on a huge scale during the 70’s and 80’s. This did have the effect of his not being allowed a Cabinet position in the Barharn Government, but, two governments later, this all seems to have been conveniently forgotten and, in the Chuan government, he has regained a Cabinet position in the Interior Ministry. Other prominent figures from the past with reputations as Godfathers, drug dealers, corrupt Government Officials ( with new ‘clean’ records after an amnesty to celebrate the King’s 50th year on the throne) have entrenched themselves in the new government and are expected to fill their pockets as quickly as possible.

The quickness in their actions comes from the strong possibility that this government will also have a short life span. I have lived here for 10 years and I have seen 8 P.M.’s. The biggest problem that a quick succession of governments brings is a lack of continuity in anything. As each government comes to power, they change or cancel the plans and contracts of the previous one, replacing them with their own. The new ministers get their cuts from the new or re-negotiated contracts. Any company, especially a foreign company, wanting to invest here has to see the danger that, whatever the contract or business climate is now, change is likely and their is no way to know if that change will affect you or not. There are plenty of more stable countries to invest in and many companies have done just that- moved their investments to other countries. The last two years has seen this exodus of money quicken and now the country is in serious peril with no good news in sight.

Update January 28, 1998

Though the baht is continuing to dive (currently at 53 to the $), there do seem to be some positive things happening. The Thai people are starting to show some unity in solving the country’s problems, which hasn’t been the case very often in the past. Various private, government and military groups have started campaigns to get people to donate money to the country and to turn-in their foreign currencies. This has been met with some success. The glaring hole is that none of the extremely wealthy politicians have done anything personally to add to the pot. There have been suggestions from local and overseas Thais that the Chuan government try to recapture the siphoned-off funds from the corrupt politicians, but at this point, there has been no response from the government.

The judiciary has though, made a ruling that will now become a precedent in future cases of vote buying. During the run-up to the elections for the past Barnharn Government, a couple of people were caught with 11.2 million baht in 100 and 20 baht note packets. Stapled to the packets were cards promoting 3 MP candidates from Buri Ram. Also in the house were voter lists and campaign literature for the candidates. One of the persons arrested was the sister of one of the candidates. The suspects were charged, but the police, due to ‘insufficient evidence’ of vote buying, dropped the case. It was, at the time, seen as a typical example of influence by powerful people in quashing an investigation. The State Prosecutors Office did continue the investigation though, and when the Barnharn government was dissolved, the next government stepped up the investigation. The suspects ended up going to trial, being convicted, appealing to the Supreme Court, and losing their appeal. They were sentenced to serve one year in jail and the 11.2 million baht confiscated. This is seen as a major step forward in the fight against corruption in vote buying and sends a message that things are changing.

Update April 1, 1998

Things are starting to normalize in Thailand. The baht is starting to recover, the price increases have started to slow down, and some of the panic is starting to wear off. The government is feeling like it can get back to business, and one of the first orders of business is the ‘payback time’.

As each government comes into office, they start by sending officials known to support the old government, into positions referred to as, ‘inactive posts’ These posts are positions with no responsibility and no power to hurt the government in power. If the officials are very high in position, then the people in the inactive posts are sometimes called ‘Inspector Generals’. What do they inspect? Usually the four walls in their office, waiting for the chance to be transferred back to power by a new, favorable government. Of course, if they are brought back to power, they will have many ‘favours’ to pay back, thus continuing the cycle. At this point, the Chuan government has retrieved many of its supporters from inactive posts and are reactivating them. Some are police officials deemed to have been ‘too honest’ or ‘not trustworthy enough’ by the former government due to their attempts at prosecuting politicians or uncovering massive cases of corruption that involve or include people close to Chavalit’s government.

Just some of the recent ‘get backs':

The investigation of the case of a high-ranking police officer who allegedly executed a group of drug suspects in cold blood has had his case taken from the last government’s back-burner and moved to the front.

Recently, Chuan ‘discovered’ that the Salween Forest, one of the last remaining virgin teak forests, has lost massive amounts of logs to companies with connections to Chavalit and the military. Though the issue has been known for years, the actions are just now happening. So far, the governers of Mae Hong Son and Tak province have been moved to ‘inactive posts’, and many more officials are expected to be ‘inactivated’ soon.

The spokesman for Chavalit’s NAP party has been accused of taking a one million baht bribe to get an officer promoted. Unfortunately, the NAP was run out of the government before the promotion could be accomplished. His story about where the money came from has changed three times already.

Numerous NAP supporters have been found to posses smuggled cars from Malaysia. The excuses for having them in their possession range from, ‘I hadn’t actually bought it, I was test driving it for a year or so’, to, ‘It’s not mine. I was waiting for the paper-work from the seller, but then he died and I couldn’t return it to him’.

These and similar cases will continue to come to light, partially as pay-back, and partially because Chuan is seen as an honest politician and the officials that want to fight corruption will try and support him, but it is this reputation as an honest politician that is probably his greatest threat to other politicians and business people. The Thai political system has always been seen as a way to get rich from various forms of corruption, and the idea that maybe an honest PM might put a stop to it is something of concern to them. The danger is that many of these same people who could lose there chances to fill there pockets are in his party and in his government coalition. Most of them ‘switched camps’ to Chuan’s just before he came to power, knowing that it would give them opportunities to continue in their old ways. It remains to be seen if they will allow Chuan to continue, or try to find a way to replace him with someone who has a good reputation, but will be more tolerant of the ‘old ways’.

Update November 17, 1998

Well, Chuan has been ‘allowed’ to continue for the time being. Some say it’s because he has given a blind eye to the corruption that continues to go on around him. My own observation is that there are numerous cases of corruption coming to light, both on the government and opposition side. They get lots of press and people are shifted to inactive posts and then…..nothing more is usually heard. Nobody goes to jail, nobody seems to pay any price. I would guess it’s because if one person were made to ‘pay his dues’, he would in turn try to make sure other people involved pay their dues, too. Because of the many fingers in the many pies, too many people have too much to lose to make anybody really pay a penalty of jail or money.

On a more positive side, a sense of stability exists and the baht has increased its value on the money market to about 38 to the dollar from a low of 53 to the dollar 10 months ago. This was a surprise to at least one huge telecom company who was reported to have lost almost 1 billion baht betting against the baht. They still came out of the quarter with a 1.7billion baht profit though, so don’t feel too sorry for them. There are some that say that the close to 1 billion baht they lost was nothing compared to the money they gained from getting inside information last year just before the baht took a nose dive. Just a day or two before the baht dived, they are rumored to have bought up lots of cheap dollars and then sold them at a nice profit when the baht fell a couple of days later….

Update May 21, 1999

Things seem to be getting back to normal…controlled chaos :) The money market has been stable for the past year and prices have leveled off. Of course, the government’s figure of 5% inflation is a dream, but it is still reasonable when compared to Indonesia.

On the political front, Chuan continues to manage to hang on to control of his three-ring circus. The scandals are being reported at a normal rate of 2-3 per day, and we are all waiting for the first ‘Big Guy’ to be sentenced to jail for corruption- or anything else for that matter. I think that if it ever does happen, it will be the biggest news of the decade.

One of the more interesting stories involved a German arrested for illegally bringing in his boat and not paying taxes on it. He was also on a persona-non-grata list, but had entered the country eight times since being put on the list. Anyway, this German, trying to get out of the immigration jail as quickly as possible, had his wife let everybody know that he was willing to buy some favors from anyone who could help get him out. As word got out, a feeding frenzy ensued, involving lawyers, policemen, politicians and a few ‘friends’, all offering help as long as they got their money first. And pay he did. The result of the 30 million baht he paid out? Absolutely nothing. He stayed in jail. After a few months of waiting, his wife finally told a newspaper about her husband and the story broke wide open. Major politicians from various parties all denied ever hearing of him or knowing him, even when some pictures appeared with him and the politicians together, and also their names appeared on the jail’s visitors list as having visited him- some on numerous occasions. But since this is Thailand, the predictable happened. Nothing. The case quieted down in the press and he was fined another 2 million dollars, which he said he could not pay, so was instead sentenced to two years. Upon his release, he is expected to be immediately re-arrested and deported to Germany to face trial there on unrelated charges. Some minor officials (‘small fish’) in the Immigration Department were reprimanded for not following proper procedures, but all the major people who took the money got off free.

Life goes on and Chavalit is planning his return….

Update August 23, 2000

Thailand will be having an election sometime around the end of this year or the beginning of next year. In the run-up to the election, there is the usual posturing going on between the politicians and their political parties.Khun Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s telecom mogul, has formed his own political party called “Thai Rak Thai” (Thai Love Thai). He said his party would be different from all the other political parties in Thailand. He would play politics fairly, and all of the members of his party would be qualified and respected people. It soon became obvious to everyone, that this was just another wolf wearing sheeps clothing. Many of the old right-wing politicians have joined his party, as well as many alleged Mafia Godfathers and corrupt politicians. He was able to attract these people do to his enormous personal wealth, derived from holding computer and telecommunications monopolies (concessions) for many years.

With this enormous wealth, he has had his pick of people from other political parties. The other parties have all cried foul, but this switching of parties is quite common in the run-up to any election. His goal is to have enough MPs to guarantee his party a place in the next government. Traditionally, the Prime Minister comes from the government party with the most members. In his first election foray, for the governor of Bangkok, his party came in second in overall election results. Though this was not considered a good showing, he still beat the Democratic candidate by several hundred thousand votes. His party was also accused of massive vote buying prior to the election for governor.

In Thailand, vote buying is carried out in several ways. The simplest and most common way is to simply give cash to people for their vote. In order to guarantee that they vote for the candidate on election day, canvisers will collect their identification card and post party members at the voting venue with voter registration lists. As the people arrive whose votes have been purchased, their name is checked against the list, and their ID is returned to them just prior to stepping into the voting booth. Lately, this type of vote buying has become too obvious, so they have adopted some new techniques. One such technique involves giving the voter a small amount of money upfront, then, if the candidate is actually elected, a much larger amount can then be collected by the voter. A number of political canvassers have been caught with large amounts of cash in small bills, along with voter lists, but so far, no one has actually been prosecuted since the episode a few years ago, noted above.

Thailand recently had its first Democratically elected Senate elections. The Senators are supposed to be completely free of any political alliance in order to remain independent, but of course, these very powerful positions are totally entrenched in the political system. There were some attempts by the Election Commission to do fair elections, but this was not completely successful. In many areas, elections were repeated due to allegations of criminal vote buying and other types of influence, but, in the end, almost all of the accused were elected to the Senate. Included in this group are some well-known military and civilian Godfathers accused of involvement in extortion, smuggling, gambling and drugs. It is a testament to their influence that, even though they are well known as bad guys, they are still able to get elected. There were some good people elected to the Senate, but seem to be clearly in the minority. Even with the new and stronger constitution, it seems that any hope of a corrupt-free government is just a dream.

Recently, there was a newspaper article in The Nation newspaper that showed statistics for alleged corruption cases involving the government during the last two years. Out of more than 27,000 cases investigated by the National Counter Corruption Commission involving more than 40,000 people, evidence of guilt was found in 1,600 cases involving about 4,000 people. In the end, only 39 people involved in 15 cases were placed on administrative leave. This happens because the corruption will involve everyone within the department, making everyone liable for prosecution if someone accuses someone else. Since everyone has their finger in the pie, it is almost impossible to get evidence for prosecution. Nobody paid back the money they received, and no one served any jail time.

With the annual civil service reshuffle season happening next month, the media is having their usual fun of speculating on who they think will be appointed to fill the most elevated positions, especially within the police and military hierarchies. Some reporters even cross the lines of journalistic propriety by openly voicing their support for favorite candidates.

Just as with all past reshuffles marred by political interference and intense jockeying for the most important posts, this year’s ritual is following a familiar pattern. One example: The Police Commission meeting scheduled recently to finalize the transfer of police officers had to be canceled at the last moment at the request of the Interior Minister, who controls the police department. It was said that the minister was unhappy with the planned transfers of two officers close to his Democratic Party were not listed for promotion.

Most people know by now that promotions in the police force are almost always vetted by political parties to ensure that those in their service are appointed to positions of power so they can be called upon an some later date, usually around election time.

Political interference in the civil service reshuffle is normally at the expense of those basic principles of promotion — seniority, competence and resourcefulness. This very often leads to resentment and demoralized civil service among those overlooked, especially those truly deserving of promotion based on merit but whom only miss out because they don’t have the right connections or because they have not bowed to the whims of their political masters and their cohorts.

Update October 10, 2000

About two months ago, the Secretary-General of the Democratic Party, Khun Sanan, was accused and convicted in the Constitutional Court of filing false reports on his wealth while an office. Some said that this was an attempt to hide the source of money gained through corrupt means. Anyway, this was the first time such a powerful politician had been brought down with legal means. Shortly after this incident, Thaksin Shinawatra was also accused of making false financial reports while he was in the Cabinet of the short-lived Chavalit government.

Under Thai law, the Prime Minister and all Cabinet members must file financial report showing all of their assets and liabilities. They are not allowed more than 5% interest in any company, and and no interest in any company that might be considered a conflict of interest with the government.

Thaksin, having his heart set on being the next Prime Minister, started to divest his interest in his huge companies in order to meet the requirements for becoming Prime Minister. His problems began when it was reported in the press that he had transferred almost all of his shares, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, to his household staff. His housekeeper, nanny and personal driver suddenly became the richest servants in the world. Many people saw this attempt by Thaksin to skirt the intention of the law and still maintain control over his holdings. Thaksin’s politically incorrect response and attempt to blame other people just made it worse, in the view of the public.

So, currently Thaksin is in the process of being investigated by the same court that was able to get rid of Khun Sanan. Actually, this is now seen as a new tool to attack one’s political enemies, so everyday, there is a new story about another politician trying to hide assets, and being accused of filing false financial reports while in office.

All of this posturing is leading up to the elections scheduled for January. My guess is that the next big issues will occur in the final two weeks before the actual election. This is the most volatile period for campaigning, with many political canvassers being threatened and even killed by political rivals. In Thai newspapers, one of the most common police statements made during election periods is, “We have a list of all of the gunmen in Thailand, and we are keeping a close eye on them”. That’s it. Nothing about who they are, or if the police will do anything other than keeping an eye on them. Just another political sound bite, I guess :-)

Update December 30, 2000

Well, Thailand is in a real mess at the moment. With the National Elections just one week away, Khun Thaksin has been found guilty by the National Counter Corruption Commission of “Hiding his assests for dishonest purposes”. They found Thaksin had, in fact, transferred shares in his companies and failed to report is assets in order to protect his businesses, and to avoid paying taxes.”Thaksin deliberately submitted his asset and debt statements with false information or concealed some information,” NCCC chairman Ophars Arunin said in a statement.

The next step is the Constitution Court, which will make the final ruling. If history is any guide, then they will most certainly uphold the ruling from the NCCC and find Thaksin guilty. If they do rule against Thaksin, he will be kicked out of politics for at least two years. Since his party is still expected to win the majority of seats, that would mean that Thaksin, as head of his party, would traditionally become the next Prime Minister. The problem facing everyone right now is that the court will not rule on this issue until after the elections, and Thaksin is insisting that he will become the next Prime Minister, even though he is under indictment. Even with calls from most of the media and many people in the government to step down temporarily, Thaksin has so far refused. Many top businesspeople say that with this cloud hanging over Thaksin and the Thai government, businesses will not want to invest in Thailand because of this uncertain environment. Many people also feel that this could put Thailand into a very serious constitutional crisis, which might create an environment for another coup attempt by some figures in the military. The pressure continues to build, and the value of the Baht is sliding quickly.

In the meantime, because we are in the final stages of campaigning before the election, there have been many attempted and successful assassinations between political rivals. The politicians are also trying to stay one step ahead of officials from the Election Commission who have been quite successful in catching many politicians in the process of paying people money for their votes. Though some people have been caught and given a red card, most people still feel like this is the tip of the iceberg.

January 7, 2001
Thaksin with family, celebrating his election victory….

Update February 6, 2001

One month after the election……there was, of course, another round of elections called due to corruption in the first election, but the second round of elections came just a few days before the deadline for elections certification by officials. What this meant was, if there was any corruption involved in the second election, there would be scant little time to investigate and have a new round of elections before the certification deadline. That was seen as a green light for vote buying. It was quite clear that the strategy of some of the politicians was, make sure you survive the first election, because your real dog fight would be in the second-round, due to the certification timing issue. This strategy worked well for these candidates. In the end, as predicted, Thai Rak Thai came out miles ahead of any other party, guaranteeing a clear majority in the government.

With this “Mandate from the People”, as Thaksin Shinawatra called it, he has enormous power at the bargaining table when choosing any coalition partners, or in choosing cabinet positions.

So, what happened is, Thaksin immediately offers Chavalit Yongchiayud and his NAP party a coalition slot. A few weeks later, he offered another coalition slot to Barharn Silaparcha, and his Chat Thai party. These two particular men are former Prime Ministers, and broadly considered to be the most inept Prime Ministers in memory.

While Thaksin reserved the most powerful (and lucrative) Cabinets positions for his own party members, he did offer some Cabinet posts to Chavalit and Barnharn. Chavalit offered himself up as Defense Minister and immediately made clear that the Old Guard was coming back, signaling a clear change in the power structure of the Armed Forces. Many people view Chavalit’s return to power as a signal of a return to the “Patronage” system, the root of the old corruption system, which had seemed to improve under the Chuan Government.

Barnharn, maybe testing the waters, offered up Chalerm Yoombamrung and Newin Chichob as Cabinet Members. There was immediate backlash from the public, and Thaksin said clearly that these particular two people would never be allowed into his Cabinet due to a strong negative public opinion of them. This comes from allegations of various activities involving corruption, strong arm tactics, and of being of low moral character.

This will be the first big test for the Thaksin Government. Thaksin must decide whether to except these controversial Cabinet members, or refuse, and risk a strong backlash from the two coalition parties, which, in all probability, would force a change in coalition partners, as Thaksin is threatening to do now. This of course would cause serious destabilization of the government, opening the doors to all kinds of other problems.

So far, since winning the election, Thaksin doesn’t seem to have made many good choices or decisions. My guess is, the next 90 days will show the future of this government.

Update June 20, 2001

Thaksin chose not to directly accept the controversial cabinet members, but each was allowed to place a discrete representative in the position. This way, they will still retain some control over the ministry. In February, tensions started to rise along the Thai/Burmese border. A group of Burmese soldiers overran a Thai military outpost along the border in northern Thailand. They were finally forced to leave, but the Burmese retaliated by shelling Mai Sai, a major border crossing town and the center of commerce for the Golden Triangle. All of the border crossings closed, and tight restrictions were imposed on all border trade and traffic. Nothing was allowed to cross from either side…..But, a couple of weeks into this, 21 fully loaded semis approached the border crossing at Mai Sai, attempting to enter Burma. Upon inspection, the 21 huge trucks were loaded with machine parts destined for a site a few kilometers inside Burma, where they are building a lignite power plant. Allegedly, the power plant is owned and controlled by the Wa army, which all sides agree is heavily involved in the drug trade.

So, here we have 21 huge vehicles trying to cross into Burma. Given the current situation, it would be crazy to think that Thailand would allow these vehicles into Burma. Then came the shocker- the lead driver said that “Chavalit has ok’d this”. Customs was shocked (but maybe not surprised, given Chavalit’s history of doing business in Burma). When the outspoken Commander of the Northern Region 3 refused to allow the passage of the convoy and later notified the press, the sh*t really hit the fan. The local newspapers even connected Chavalit’s Aide to the company building the power plant. After a few days, the convoy turned around and headed back to Bangkok. Nothing has been reported since. Remember Thaksin’s trial for corruption? It has been a regular circus for the last few months. Thaksin really revved-up the PR machine in order to put pressure on the Constitution Court prior to its ruling on Thaksin’s case..coming out of the woodwork from all directions, various friends of Thaksin started signature drives to collect as many signatures in support of Thaksin as possible, and 999 monks gathered for a ceremony in Khon Khaen to hopefully create some better karma for Thaksin. While this was going on, Thaskin’s lawyers were giving a poor showing in court. Defense strategies changed weekly. In the end, fighting back tears, Thaksin said he was an honest man, but clueless as to what his wife was doing with his billions of Baht.

Update February 10, 2002

Thaksin survived his corruption trial, but with the credibility of the court completely destroyed due to accusations of last minute panel changes, and violating their own process in delivering their verdict.

Since his “vindication”, Thaksin has continued on his road of gaining control of the government and muzzeling his critics. His response when accused of this is, “I want to bring stability to politics in Thailand”, and, “We only need to hear good news. Negative reporting by the media is counterproductive” That hasn’t stopped some brave souls from accusing Thaksin of trying to implement policies and decisions protective of, and beneficial to, his family, friends, and Telecom Empire.

On his annual Birthday Address to the Nation, HM the King said that Thailand is not only not improving, but the situation is getting worse and worse. He talked about “Double Standards” present in Thai society, and that this is a main contributing factor to the decline of society and government in Thailand. During this perceived ‘chewing-out’, Thaksin sat with stiffly, with a huge frown, looking at the King. Afterwards, many people made public statements in support of the King and his good advice, but Thaksin never said one word. There has been some gossip among Thais suggesting that there is some sort of business relationship between The King’s son and Thaksin, and this is something The King is also unhappy about. There are many issues going on behind the scenes in Thailand, that, if talked about openly, could spell danger for those speaking out….. Maybe I should change the subject? :-)

Today, there is editorial piece in The Nation this paper, strongly criticizing Thaksin on his first year in office. The editorial said that with all the political influence and power that Thaksin has, he has just continued to allow things to go on as usual. Here is the full text. Article

It does seem clear that Thaksin’s ‘Honeymoon Period’ is over. Will Thaksin bend to the will of the King and the needs of the people? Or, will he become another Mahathir, consolidating power for his own personal use, and stomping on people’s rights and destroying what is great abount this country?

Update September 21, 2006

Well, after all these years, another coup. Though this one seems to be run by the King, who gave them permission to have the coup. Yes, Thaksin is gone.

So, I have spent 20 years here, looking over the scene. The only thing I can say is “Wow!”. This place seems bordering on chaos most of the time, but yet still everyone and everything seems ‘smooth’. Really causes me to think a lot…

**** Note: Do to some recent strong reactions to this writing from some of the people named here, I must give a disclaimer to cover myself. Did my little story hurt some feelings? :-)

“All information in this story is gathered from the Bangkok Post Newspaper, The Nation Newspaper and Thai television news programs.

Except where stated as fact, all suggestions of any type of illegal activity are simply allegations as reported in the Public Press. Some direct quotes have been paraphrased in this story for purposes of clarity only, with no intention of creating a false image of the actual quote.”

L. Wheeler

Chalerm vows to expose mastermind of offensive Internet in 72 hours
By The Nation
Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung on Thursday vowed to issue an arrest warrant against a mastermind
behind Internet messages deemed offensive to the monarchy.

“In no more 72 hours I should have the outcome of tracing who is behind the posting of inappropriate messages in the Internet,” he said.

Chalerm reminded webmasters and service providers to comply with the law or risk facing a crackdown. He said
offensive messages posted from abroad would be under the jurisdiction of Thai law because they were circulated in the country.
The Nation
22/5/08

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