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‘Dereliction of duty’: Thailand’s PM facing the corruption music

As violence rages in Thailand, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing charges of dereliction of duty. Crikey’s Asian correspondent reports from Bangkok on the political downfall and the Australian connection.

When Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb took the job to help former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile, start his Thai Rak Thai political party in 1997-98, he probably didn’t think it would come to this.

Tomorrow, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck (pictured) — Thailand’s Prime Minister since 2011 — will front the nation’s Anti-Corruption Commission on “dereliction of duty” charges stemming from the disastrous rice-pledging scheme. The cornerstone of a successful campaign that installed Yingluck as prime minister, the ineptly conceived and corruptly managed scheme could mean the end of her government.

But any move to force Yingluck out other than at the ballot box could plunge the country into violence and even civil war, with reports circulating that her supporters in the north, the infamous Red Shirts, backed by Thaksin, are arming and preparing to descend on Bangkok. The Red Shirts were central to bloody Bangkok street battles that killed 90 and injured hundreds of others  during 2010.

There is a real sense the government is finally teetering under the strain. Violence in Bangkok is rising day by day, with random grenade bomb attacks killing three people, including two children, at a shopping centre at the weekend and a gun battle at a protest site just off the tourist trip at Silom in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

In a rare televised address on Monday the country’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, warned protesters to adhere to the constitution. “If there is any further loss of life,” General Prayuth said, “the country will definitely collapse, and there won’t be any winners or losers.”

But he continued to insist that the army does not wish to take control in a country that has had more than a dozen coups d’etat since World War II: “The military doesn’t want to use force and weapons to fight against fellow Thai people who have different political viewpoints.”

As the world waits to see if Thailand will go the way of the Ukraine, the rice-pledging scheme will take centre stage.

Widely seen as being as riddled with corruption, the scheme is is now being investigated by the commission at the behest of establishment forces ever more determined to force Yingluck out and rid Thai politics of the Shinawatra family, which has challenged the decades-old order in Bangkok since the turn of the century.

Thaksin tapped Robb following his success in Australia running John Howard’s campaign in 1996. Robb told Crikey during the trip he took last October to Indonesia with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minitster Julie Bishop that he had spent about a week per month in Thailand during those years, and as he advised Thaksin — a former policeman-turned-telecoms billionaire — on political strategy, he picked up other corporate clients keen to get into the Asian market along the way

Robb also acted as an unofficial go-between in 2004 between the Howard government and Thaksin’s government as Australia and Thailand finalised and then signed a free trade agreement, Thailand’s first with a developed country and designed to bolster Thaksin’s economic credentials.

Thaksin is now in exile, living in Dubai and London, having fled the country after a conviction on corruption-related charges in 2008, two years after he was ousted in a coup orchestrated by the same forces now determined to precipitate his sister’s downfall. But the former PM is still widely seen at the puppet-master behind the Pheu Thai Party, the third iteration of what are now referred to as Thaksinite parties. Robb said last year the two men still spoke every six months or so.

The Prime Minister is accused of having known abut corruption in the rice scheme and failing to halt it …”

If Robb was, in fact, the brains behind helping Thaksin refine his political strategy of harnessing the populous north of the country (Thaksin hails from Chiang Mai, the nation’s de facto northern capital), it has worked a treat.

Thaksin has virtually shut the opposition Democrat Party out of office; the only time the Democrats have run Thailand since Thaksin emerged was from 2008-2011, after they were appointed by the military in the aftermath of the 2006 coup.

The more populous north and its legions of rice farmers have swamped the Bangkok middle-class Democrat Party and their supporters in the south of the country in successive elections. While the establishment fights back using its control of the courts and other “independent” institutions like the Anti-Corruption Commission, at its core, it’s a battle between wealthy elites.

Yingluck’s appearance before the Anti-Corruption Commission is the last chance the establishment has of “legally” removing her ahead of the third phase of voting, due in April. In the election held on February 2, protesters shut down polling stations on the day, as well as during advance voting on January 26, disenfranchising millions of people.

Still, Yingluck’s troubles relating to the politically motivated rice scheme are self-inflicted. The scheme has promised farmers prices 40%-50% higher than market rates, leaving the country in debt and with huge stockpiles of rice, much of which is becoming inedible. In a moment of incompetence, the government called the election before it had organised to fund payment to its core constituency. Pheu Thai Party voting farmers have joined opposition protesters in Bangkok demanding payments the government cannot provide because the scheme has left the government skint — and its hands are tied by rules restricting spending while in caretaker mode in the run-up to the next round of voting in April.

Nonetheless Yingluck is now going to the country’s banks, cap in hand, desperately seeking US$4 billion to continue rice scheme payments, so far failing to convince banks to support her.

The Prime Minister is accused of having known abut corruption in the rice scheme and failing to halt it, thereby breaching section 178 of the constitution and of violating section 157 of the Criminal Code. If found guilty she faces impeachment by Thailand’s Senate, which is part-appointed/part-elected. Yingluck has refused to resign and correctly claimed the anti-corruption watchdog is rushing the case.

The opposition protesters, who want Pheu Thai kicked out and some form of unelected “people’s council” appointed to oversee largely unspecified “reforms” to Thailand’s political system. In a display of economic heft the protesters last week orchestrated a run on a major bank that had opted to lend money to the government; its chairman was ousted on Tuesday. Now they are targeting major business, such as mobile phone company AIS, owned by the Shinawatras.

Something seems set to give in Bangkok soon. It would be fascinating to know whether Robb has received any phone calls from Thaksin seeking advice on a strategy to extricate his sister from her delicate position and to stop Thailand falling into the chaos.

6
  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    That pillock of the political community, Lord Downer, was going to welcome “The Pillager of Thailand” with open alms.

  • 2
    Donna Webster
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I live in Bangkok and it is extremely difficult to get a holistic overview of the actual situation that has sparked and keeps escalating the troubles in this fabulous city. Thank you for a well rounded succinct overview. I will share this with other expatriate colleagues who are struggling to understand what is actually happening here.

    Whilst generally unaffected by the protesting personally, the people and the economy are suffering as people choose to holiday elsewhere and/or avoid Bangkok.

    You are right, if feels like something is going to ‘give’ soon. Let’s hope for the sake of the millions of people whose economy was just starting to really thrive, that it is a democratic peaceful result.

  • 3
    Angela Ballard
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    what commentators and writers on this topic have failed to understand is the corruption that got Thaksin into power in the first place: a monopoly on mobile/telecoms courtesy of his mates in the ‘90’s making him the first billionaire in a country of many poor people. The Thai Rak Thai (Thai love thai) incarnation basically bought votes by offering one million baht- $40000 USD to every village headman in the north and east to ensure votes from the rural poor. This corruption has continued under his sister the current PM albeit now with public funds so It is not just old establishment elites who want the thaksinites out. There is a long term broad Alliance of educated left together with networks of students and civil society and other urban and rural poor who are struggling towards their democracy as they have been doing for decades now - thwarted yet again by corruption and the monied classes. That they feel the need to fight for their democracy via street protest says much about how true democracy has been denied them for so long. Much of the western press have not fully understood this. Dig deeper to get to the heart of the matter.

  • 4
    Daemon
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Pillager” Cluso - that’s a bit strong doncha know old chap. Though, if I think about it hmmmm, no - it’s better than complete rapist, which was the beginning of the Thaksin shit fight.

    There are so many parallels between what Thaksin (an elite who made his money screwing the education department for computers, after he had a fairly mediocre position as a policeman), then became an instant “democrat” appealing to struggling farmers for their vote (sold for 300 Baht per), to support him and he would give every one of them a buffalo for their efforts. Of course no one pointed out that the 1 Rai farmers had nowhere to keep a buffalo even if he could find the required 40 million buffalo, which he couldn’t since they had all been eaten years before, and replaced with a Kwai Lek (literally - iron buffalo) http://ibty.in/eed0e52 , which did all the work of a buffalo, and fed on diesel. It was also easy to store.

    Latest from the “government” is that they are giving students iPads. Interesting people the Thai’s but fancy talking to Robb about it.

  • 5
    cairns50
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    so now there the infamous red shirts , not the infamous yellow shirts that hijacked the countries economy when they closed the airport the last time an election didnt go there way, seems you only like democracy when the side you like wins the election

    i travel to bangkok and thailand regulary also,my feeling from the thai people i talk to is that they mostly support the government

    this is once again a political coup de tat by the entrenced elite to keep power and deny democracy to the masses

    infamous red shirts? are the people outside of bangkok second class citizens in there own country?

  • 6
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Why does Crikey continue to publish Sainsbury’s slip-shod cut’n’paste crap?

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