[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for: 16 March 2006
Review: 116/06

Thailand : Of Cabbages, Kings and the Mob

As we upload this ACHR Review, Supinya Klangnarong who was sued for libel by Shin Corporation, formerly owned by the family of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand has reportedly been acquitted. It is a victory for democracy and freedom of expression but Thailand is inexorably heading towards political uncertainty with the decision of the opposition demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thai Rak Thai Party and to boycott snap poll slated for 2 April 2006.

Tens of thousands of people massed in Bangkok at a rally in support of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. BBC News

Until now, Prime Minister has the mandate his party received in the last elections held in January 2005. In an attempt to counter the call for his resignation, Prime Minister Shinawatra called for snap polls three years ahead of its due. If the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) boycotts the parliamentary elections slated for 2 April 2006, he will even lose the thin mandate he presently has.

The richest man of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in 2001 with a landslide victory. The Thai Rak Thai, which literary means "Thai Loves Thai", own the elections because of the largesse distributed by Thaksin Shinawatra. The Thai Rak Thai party won the elections out of the blue. Thaksin became the first Prime Minister to lead an elected government through a full four-year term in office and win the elections in January 2005 for the second term.

The present crisis intensified after the Shinawatra family sold its controlling stake of 49% shares in Thai telecom giant Shin Corp, which Thaksin founded, to a group of investors led by Singaporean state-owned investment firm Temasek in a deal worth Bt73.3 billion. Opponents, including academics, non-partisan senators and opposition MPs accused the Prime Minister of jeopardising public interest by selling off the family's controlling stakes in Shin Corp to a foreign company and avoiding tax liability by the parties to the sell off. The Temasek-Shin Corp deal was reportedly structured in a complicated manner basically to achieve two objectives - (i) to enable the parties to avoid transaction taxes and (ii) to keep Shin's foreign shareholding within the statutory limits. The Shinawatra family and their relatives were controlling the majority of holdings in Avanced Info Service Plc through the Shin Corp. Under the Thai laws, company-to-company transactions are subject to tax while individual transactions are not. In order to avoid tax liability, all five members of the Shinawatra and Damapong families sold their combined 49.6 per cent stake to Temasek Holdings in their individual capacity. To achieve the second objective, i.e., to keep Shin's foreign shareholding within the statutory limits, the Thaksin Shinawatra's Government suitably amended the Telecommunications Act some days before the Shinawatra family's share sell-off raising the foreign shareholding limit in a Thai telecom from 25 per cent to 49 per cent.

On his part, Thaksin Shinawatra warded off the accusations saying that his children as major shareholders in Shin Corp had decided on their own to sell their shares so that their father (Thaksin) would no longer have to face conflict-of-interest allegations as Prime Minister.

Since he came to power in 2001, Prime Minister Shinawatra has been plagued by allegations that some government policies were designed to help his family's business empire unfairly. And the market capitalisation of Shin Corp - the parent company of the country's biggest mobile-telephone service provider, Advanced Info Service, as well as other telecom and media firms - has tripled. It has always been difficult to make distinction between Thai national interest and the interest of the Shinawatra family. The CEO style functioning has become a baggage.

Prime Minister sought to resolve the problem of drug trafficking in a true CEO style. On 1 February 2003, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared war against drugs and gave license to kill to the police. According to a report compiled by Lt-General Nawin Singhapalit, head of the body that re-investigated the unusually high death toll in the Thaksin Government's war on drugs, a total of 2,921 deaths occurred in 2,656 murder cases during the three months. Of these, 58 cases involved confirmed extra-judicial killings by police while making arrests. 72 people were killed in 50 raids by police and security personnels. Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand, acting deputy chief of the Forensic Science Department in the Justice Ministry stated that scientific investigation indicated that many victims were murdered while under police custody. However, none of these cases had made any headway in the courts.

Concerned with the reports of widespread violations of human rights including the arbitrary deprivation of lives, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej on 4 December 2003 suggested the government to ascertain the exact number of deaths and clarify the circumstances surrounding the deaths. But the government took little measures.

Prime Minister Shinawatra's another major failure has been his inability to resolve the unrest in southern provinces. As of January 2006, more than 1,000 people have died since an insurgency began in early 2004. His failure to resolve the crisis is the manifestations of his CEO style governance. Instead of seeking a negotiated settlement of the crisis, he has always sought a military solution thereby resulting in more violations of human rights, including disappearances, extra-judicial executions, illegal detention, torture etc. There are still no sign of let up in violence in the southern province of Satun, Songkla, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat despite putting these provinces under martial law for a considerable period since January 2004 and then imposition of emergency on 15 July 2005. On 15 July 2005, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government promulgated the "Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, B.E. 2548" to replace the existing martial law and grant the Prime Minister absolute power to declare a state of emergency. Despite his Thai Rak Thai party enjoying an absolute majority in the Parliament, Thaksin adopted the short cut process in promulgating the "Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, B.E. 2548" through an ordinance instead of enacting a legislation in the Parliament through the democratic and popular process of law making. Such scant regard for the opposition has been his main weakness.

Thaksin Shinawatra was equally intolerant of his critics and opponents, more especially the media. He not only despised the media but also sought to muzzle it by filing as many as six law suits against media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, who had accused the Prime Minister of being involved various allegations of corruption, including bribery in the purchase of equipment for Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi airport, and conflicts of interest involving business interests owned by Shinawatra family. Sondhi Limthongkul became Prime Minister Shinawatra's nemesis. He decided to withdraw the lawsuits only after King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is widely revered in the country, appeared to press Mr Thaksin in his birthday speech to be less sensitive to criticism.

Earlier in October 2003, the Shin Corp, the telecommunications giant owned by Shinawatra family, sued Campaign for Media Reform (CMR) Deputy Secretary-General, Supinya Klangnarong for accusing the Shin Corp of being a major beneficiary of the Thaksin administration's policies. She also accused the firm of using the profits, in turn, to further advance Thaksin's political clout. In its libel suit, the plaintiff-Shin Corp demanded Baht 400 million as compensation for damages from the defendents- Supinya, Thai Journal Group Co, and Thai Post newspaper's Roj Ngarmman, Kannikar Wiriyakul and Thavisin Sathirattanacheewin.

Thailand's King His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej time and again intervened to remind Prime Minister Shinawatra to be democratic and tolerant. Without His Majesty's interventions, Thaksin Shinawatra would have become a tyrant.

Unless a State shares borders with Afghanistan, the heartland of the Taleban and the War Against Terror, military interventions is unlikely to find support from international community. Above all, in Thailand, one requires approval of His Majesty. The Thai military generals are consummate readers of politics and are unlikely to be influenced by Thaksin Shinawatra's threat of imposing emergency.

It is not the decision of the People Alliance Democracy led by Major General (Retd) Chamlong Srimuang and Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul to stay at Government House until caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra steps down which poses major threat to Thaksin Shinawatra. It is the decision to boycott the snap poll slated for 2 April 2006. Unless Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra contemplates an honourable exit strategy and gambles with emergency, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej will have a few hard decisions to make.

Mobocracy is crucial to make distinction between company's interest and nation's interest. Sondhi Limthongkul should remember it.

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