A week before the Philippines achieved its first investment grade status, credit ratings agency Fitch upgraded Thailand’s ratings three notches higher than non-investment levels. The said upgrades were in recognition of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ability to maintain political stability just a couple of years after divisions created by his brother Thaksin almost succeeded in tearing Thailand apart.
A farang expert on Thai politics once described Thaksin as a Thai Mussolini. The erstwhile mogul and former police chief built a patronage system that rivals that of the monarchy’s. His strong support base, composed mostly of the rural poor in the kingdom’s Isan region, made him a formidable alternative power pole to King Bhumibol Adulyadej‘s circle. His populist economic policy– dubbed by ex-Presidet Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as Thaksinomics– gave Thailand its first economic turn-around since the Asian Financial Crisis; but his tenure was marked with alleged corruption, human rights abuses, and authoritarian tendencies. In 2006, he was ousted in a military coup that was widely believed to have been engineered by the President of His Majesty’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsunalonda.
Since then, Thailand has been in a protracted political war between the Thaksinite forces and their Red Shirt street army on one hand, and the coalition among the Palace, the royalist mandarins that make up the ammart and their allies in the military, the Bangkok elite, and the Yellow Shirt middle class activists on the other.
When the post-Thaksin junta was forced to call for elections in 2007, the Thaksinites succeeded in getting Samak Sundaravej to rule as Prime Minister on Thaksin’s behalf. The ammart responded by having him impeached for appearing in his cooking show on TV. Just the same, the Thaksinites replaced him with Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, prompting the royalists to resort to a judicial coup: The Constitutional Court had Prime Minister Somchai and the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party banned from politics, and the military brokered an anti-Thaksin minority government led by British-born Abhisit Vejjajiva. Meanwhile, Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests became a constant sight on the streets of Bangkok, culminating in destructive occupation of public buildings like the Suvharnabumi Airport and violent riots that, at one point, caused the evacuation of heads of state in town for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The ruckus subsided with the landslide election of Thaksin’s sister, the charming Yingluck, as premier in 2011. Aware of the enormous costs of the paralyzing street protests that embarrassed the kingdom and turned investors away, the Thaksinite forces and the Yellow coalition seemed to have agreed on what I’ve called a testy truce, under which the Prime Minister and her allies would keep Thaksin abroad and the royalist order intact, and the army won’t launch a coup.
But Thaksin didn’t have to return to Thailand to rule. Observers marvel at how the fugitive ex-premier has employed the Internet to run the government in Bangkok: He presides over Cabinet meetings and give instructions to officials and members of the ruling Pheu Thai party through Skype, and holds court in Dubai and Hong Kong, summoning party leaders and receiving politicians eager to get Cabinet portfolios. Even the parliamentary debates on the controversial two-trillion-baht infrastructure bill is being supervised by the former prime minister via remote control. As a result, Prime Minister Yingluck has taken to insisting, at almost every possible occasion, that she, not her brother, runs the government.
Meanwhile, political maneuverings continue. Every now and then the Thaksinite government would introduce bills that aim to change the military-imposed 2006 constitution and issue a blanket amnesty on all offenses prior to the coup, while the royalists would have the Constitutional Court thwart the said actions. Last year, in an interesting ploy, the Thaksinite forces had former Prime Minister Abhisit indicted for murder in connection with his government’s handling of the Red Shirt protests of 2009. It was obviously designed to get the opposition Democratic Party to support the blanket amnesty bill– after all, Abhisit, not just Thaksin, would benefit, too.
Perhaps in retaliation, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) started this month an inquiry into allegations that Prime Minister Yingluck had misdeclared her financial statement. The message from the ammart is clear: If we could boot Prime Minister Samak out of office for cooking on TV, we can boot Prime Minister Yingluck out over false financial statements, too. This is classic political brinkmanship, to which Thaksin won’t succumb: One of his minions, Kasem Nimmonrat of Chiang Mai, has resigned from parliament, paving the way for Thaksin’s other younger sister, Yaowapa Wongsawat, wife of former Prime Minister Somchai, to run for the seat.
Since Chiang Mai is a Thaksin bailiwick, Yaowapa will surely be in parliament by this month, ready to replace Yingluck should the NACC oust her. Thaksin’s other sister, therefore, is also his spare tire.