“Thaksin Ample Rich. Thais ample poor”.
– Banner at the 50,000-plus anti-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rally in Bangkok, February 4
“I’ll go on doing my duty as the prime minister for three more years … These are just a few stupid people. Let’s ignore them.”
– Thaksin’s reaction in Chiang Mai, February 5
BANGKOK – It was a sea of yellow – yellow T-shirts, yellow paper caps, yellow scarves, yellow headbands, all of them bearing the mantra Koo chat (Save the nation) – a compact monochrome tapestry woven by more than 50,000 people and completely enveloping Bangkok’s Royal Plaza on Saturday night.
They were teachers opposing the proposed local-government takeover of schools, environmentalists, labor unions fighting privatization, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fighting free-trade agreements, pro-democracy groups, intellectuals, senators, students. A full cross-section of Bangkok’s urban middle class came straight from the office, came with their families, came with an army of mobile phones with built-in cameras ready to spread the message to the rest of the city and country.
And the message was unmistakable. “Thaksin!” shouted the protest-rally organizer and founder of the Manager Media Group, Sondhi Limthongkul. Ok pai! (“Get out”!) responded the sea of yellow. This was the biggest anti-government protest in Thailand since 1992, when a military-backed dictatorship was toppled.
Was populist billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra listening? Apparently not; on Saturday morning, in his weekly radio address, he had described the protesters as “a mob”, a term that in a respectful, Buddhist society such as Thailand carries an immensely negative connotation, much more than in the West.
And was the rest of the country watching? Not really. When the sea of yellow at the Royal Plaza was still swelling to tens of thousands, state-owned Channel 9 played down the number of protesters to “1,500 people”. The evening news on iTV – until recently a Shinawatra family property, now property of the Singaporean government – was consumed by Thaksin’s eventful day away in his home city Chiang Mai (after he dispatched his family to London for “security reasons”).
Thaksin’s government machine pulled no punches to impose a total news blackout. Globalized Thais may have been kept informed by satellite TV and the Internet, but Thai peasants in the northeast, Thai fishermen in the south, in fact the more than 80% of the population of this country living with less than US$250 a month, when they tuned in to their state-sponsored radio or TV programs, got absolutely no perspective on how Bangkok was rocking the government to the core. What they got instead was the endless replay of Thaksin’s weekly radio show.
Meanwhile in Bangkok, mobile phones and word of mouth were spreading in pure people-power mode – fighting the media blackout. At midnight in Patpong – the bustling, world-famous girlie-bar area – every humble street vendor wanted to know what was going on in the Royal Plaza. Many said they would join the rally as soon as they dismantled their stalls around 1 in the morning.
The English-language daily The Nation, in an editorial, did not fail to stress that “tight control of state media for self-serving propaganda purposes is reminiscent of the corrupt military regimes of old”. The paper now qualifies Thaksin as “a monster of Thai people’s own making. They allowed themselves to first fall for the populist policies and handed over an unprecedented parliamentary majority to Thaksin, giving him virtual absolute power.”
The “monster” may aspire to become the new Lee Kwan Yew (Singapore’s former strongman) while actually behaving like a tin-pot Third World dictator. But it is now evident the sea of yellow – those “few stupid people” – won’t let him get away with it.
Even ever-smiling, tolerant Buddhists are not immune to losing their patient approach to human folly. The widespread sentiment among the Bangkok urban middle class – expressed by Sondhi for months in his Thailand This Week mobile talk show – is that Thaksin has lost his popular mandate.
Among a string of accusations of corruption and cronyism, Sondhi has detailed that “over the past four to five years, personal debts in Thailand have risen sharply from $2,000 per household to $3,500 – a consequence of the government’s populist policies. But the market value of Shin Corp has risen from $1.25 billion to nearly $10 billion over the same period. Then, the premier’s family sold off its shares … without paying any taxes.”
For informed Thais, the straw that broke the camel’s back happened less than three weeks ago in the form of the prime minister’s family’s deal to sell off 49.6% of their multibillion-dollar Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings, the Singaporean government’s investment agency, for 73.2 billion baht ($1.85 billion), totally tax-free. The tax aspect has not been fully explained, although defenders of the deal insist they acted within the law.
Thaksin’s trademark arrogance of power compounded public anger – as he derided critics of the deal as “envious of my money”. But the PM’s crucial mistake was to play down national pride in this fiercely independent nation. The huge deal may have been fishy in itself – as the nation’s top politician used every legal loophole for personal gain and could never explain the shady role of Ample Rich Investment Co, a tax haven he set up in the British Virgin Islands in 1999; but on top of it he sold national assets – government concessions, including telecom wave bands, satellite parking, air traffic rights and a TV station – to foreigners.
Sectors of the Thai press may have finally woken up to the “Singaporeization” of Thailand – which is happening in more ways than one. Former policeman Thaksin’s model is Singapore’s Lee. Thaksin’s idea of a mandate from heaven is an autocratic government, a virtual police state lite with the press firmly under control, no dissent allowed and unlimited shopping opportunities; witness the mall mania transforming a tourist corridor in Bangkok into a copy of Singapore’s Orchard Road.
Business-wise, Singapore is now the second-largest foreign investor in Thailand behind Japan, with a heavy presence in finance and services, telecom, real estate and manufacturing. Now, with the Shin Corp deal, Singapore has advanced even more on telecom and banking – strategic sectors. Even in the so-called model of free enterprise, the United States, foreign control of strategic industrial sectors is not allowed.
There is a widespread perception in informed circles in Thailand that the premier sold off the country to Singapore – thus the proliferation of anti-Singaporean banners among the sea of yellow at the Royal Plaza. The fact that the Singaporeans themselves did not see the backlash coming also speaks volumes about the island republic, a consumerist society kept under rigid control where making money is everything and there’s virtually no understanding of complex sociopolitical variables.
An Ample Rich lame duck
The Thai urban-middle-class perception of Thaksin as a corrupt populist who bent the laws of the nation to add a couple of extra billion to his coffers – while selling off national assets in the process – simply won’t go away, irrespective of the prime minister deriding everyone who criticizes him as “a mob” or “a few stupid people”.
But the sea of yellow will have to keep up the pressure. Another rally is already planned for next Saturday. Judging by last Saturday’s mega-protest, they will keep developing as an urban take of mor lam – a kind of rural, northeastern Thai theater, almost like a running ballad, that takes place from sundown to sunrise during the dry season.
At 6pm, everybody at the Royal Plaza rose to sing the King’s anthem. One hour later, a Sondhi on fire hit the stage, his routine like a stand-up comedian’s, warming up the crowd for the lengthy reading of a seven-page petition that was later submitted to the head of the Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda. The Privy Council is a select panel of advisers, selected by the King of Thailand himself. The petition argued in detail how Thaksin had lost the legitimacy to rule the country.
The rally lasted no less than 16 hours without a single violent incident, despite government-stoked alarmist signals. Early on Sunday, Sondhi’s Buddhist master Buddha Issara led communal prayers, followed by a merit-making ceremony performed for 99 monks.
For the tens of thousands who stayed at the Royal Plaza until Sunday morning the rally was indeed a success. As he had announced in advance, Sondhi managed to lodge three serious petitions against Thaksin with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Prem, and General Sondhi Boonyaraklin, the army chief.
It is clear that an embattled Thaksin will not resign, even under severe pressure. In his endlessly replayed Saturday morning radio show, the prime minister explicitly warned that “the only person who can tell me to quit is His Majesty the King. If His Majesty whispers to me: ‘Thaksin, please leave,’ I’ll go.” This only served to energize the sea of yellow at the Royal Plaza even more. Thaksin’s line of defense will remain the endless quoting of the 19 million people who voted for him in the last elections a year ago that gave him a second four-year term.
But in Thailand, Bangkok does count. Thaksin’s urban support – not to mention his credibility – is in tatters. He may be an even wealthier billionaire by now, but he will be subject to relentless scrutiny whatever he does, for instance if he decides to invest in privatized state companies. He may mobilize – or simply buy, with 1,000-baht banknotes – crowds of supporters in the countryside to boost his profile, but that won’t cut it in Bangkok. Moreover, the adoring “crowd” in his home town Chiang Mai on Sunday was fewer than 10,000.
The next step has to be the configuration of a broad anti-Thaksin coalition that should include the opposition Democrat Party, the Phalang Dhama Party, businessmen, intellectuals, farmers, the urban poor, labor organizations, NGOs and students. According to the Campaign for Popular Democracy secretary general, Suriyasai Katasila, a new group called “People’s Alliance for Democracy”, bound to campaign all over the country, should do everything in its power to topple Thaksin. Two Thaksin government ministers, of culture and of information and communications technology, have already resigned, and more may do so in the next few days. A small group of senators have initiated an impeachment process – but that’s a long and winding road.
A shorter way to doom may reside in the Thai Constitutional Court having to decide again whether Thaksin intentionally concealed his assets before he became prime minister in 2001. This time the court will have to consider a new crucial fact – that the Shinawatra family managed to sell its telecom empire to Singapore tax-free thanks in large part to the shady, fabulously named, Virgin Islands-based Ample Rich Investment Co.
Only one thing is certain. When your schemes lead you to become $1.85 billion richer, and tax-free, you may have no problems orchestrating a safe, cushioned, “dignified” exit. It’s up to Thai civil society – those “few stupid people” – to keep up the pressure and get to the heart of the matter.