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.