Exiled Thaksin takes center stage at Puea Thai Party campaign launch

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 27, 2011 Last weekend the opposition Puea Thai Party launched its campaign for the anticipated election later this summer (despite the chances that there might be none after all) and unveiled its promises policies at the Rangsit Campus of Thammasat University north of Bangkok (which might be surprising in itself). If you were looking for a bold, fresh new start for Thailand's opposition and paradigm change in Thai politics, you'll be disappointed! Because last Saturday one man stood above all despite the lack of his physical presence.

The exiled Thaksin Shinawatra took center stage and phoned-in during the event, as he did regularly at recent red shirt protests and executive party meetings, to list all the things he'll do if the Puea Thai Party wins the election.

Thaksin later promised to increase the village fund by Bt1 million per village if the opposition Pheu Thai, of which he is the de-facto leader, wins. ... Thaksin then vowed that the party, if elected, would solve the flood problem in Bangkok for good by building a mega-dyke some 30 kilometres in length as in the Netherlands.

Thaksin also vowed to reclaim some 300 square kilometres of land from the sea around Samut Prakan and Samut Songkram provinces and build a new city with an excellent environment and rail link to Bangkok and acting as an IT and financial hub.

The former premier also promised:

- Ten new electric rail lines would be introduced in Bangkok with a fixed fee of Bt20 per ride

- New flats and houses would be built to allow students and poor people to rent at Bt1,000 per month.

- Construct a land bridge linking the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

- Eliminate the drugs problem within 12 months and eradicate poverty within four years.

- Debt moratorium to those owing between Bt500,000 to Bt1 million for three to five years.

- Minimum corporate income tax would be reduced from 30 percent to 23 percent within the next year.

- Fresh university graduates would be guaranteed a minimum monthly salary of Bt15,000 and the minimum wage will be set at Bt300 per day.

These were just some of the dozens of overambitious campaign promises (anybody recalls his infamous promise in 1995 to solve Bangkok's traffic problems "within six months"?). Many of his new policies are more or less a continuation of his policies during his tenure as prime minister from 2001 until 2006, aimed at the poor and rural population. As mentioned before, those who expected a big progressive change, are left to look elsewhere than the Puea Thai Party. Thus unsurprisingly, it didn't took long until the first critical voices weighed in (apart from the usually shrill "Thaksin is the devil"-trolling):

As good as those might seem in theory at least to some people, coming from Mr. Thaksin the ideas are gimmicky, dilettantish and often cynical. His late conversion to the cause of political freedom fools no one, and his thoughts about fiscal policy are rooted in a superficial understanding of Thailand's competitiveness problem.

As is typical of Mr. Thaksin, then, these proposals fail to amount to a coherent program of government or a formula for addressing Thailand's most fundamental problems of social division, inadequate human capital, and diminishing confidence in leading institutions.

"Thailand Caught on the Thaksin Rebound", by Michael Montesao, Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2011

Exiled Thai academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn also did not have many nice words to say about Thaksin:

The recent speech by Taksin [sic!] was designed to outline policies for Peua Thai Party for the upcoming election. However, there were great weaknesses in this speech. (...)

What Taksin did not talk about was HOW to dismantle the web of dictatorship which has throttled Democracy. He also ignored the Red Shirts who are the only real force which can challenge this dictatorship outside parliament. This is not surprising, since Taksin had no role in creating the Red Shirt movement.

Taksin talked too much about himself, but worse still, he kept insisting that he was a loyal subject of the Monarchy. (...) Taksin refused to campaign for the scrapping of Lèse Majesté.

On issues that really lie in the hearts of most Red Shirts: (...) the need to release all political prisoners and drop charges, Taksin was silent. This was a huge mistake on his part. (...)

On the drugs war, Taksin showed that he has learnt nothing, repeating the need for the failed and violent tactics of the past. On the South he did make some concessions that he had made mistakes (...).

At best, Taksin’s speech was a utopian wish list. It showed the weakness of his party that he had to make the policy speech. The Red Shirt movement must continue to develop its political understanding and campaigning which goes beyond Taksin and Peua Thai. We may have to grit our teeth and vote for Peua Thai, but the struggle will have to continue, whether or not the conservatives and the Military manage to fix the elections.

"Ji on Thaksin’s election promises", via Thai Political Prisoners, April 25, 2011

It is indeed the weakness of the party, but one that is intended - if one proposed slogan "Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai acts" is anything to go by, then it is apparent that Thaksin was never gone and is calling the shots. With still no party leader and PM candidate picked (although most likely Thaksin will choose his politically inexperienced sister Yingluck to run), it rarely made any attempts to move beyond their former prime minister.

Also, the red shirts' continued repression (as seen lately with the crackdown on community radio stations) was blatantly left unacknowledged, his hint to continue the brutal 'war on drugs' (which the current government has resurrected), the lack of support for unions' rights and other social gifts to the people indicate that Thaksin is not interested in a long-lasting, political change that ironically he set off (somewhat unintentionally) by actually doing something for the rural electorate and empower them with at least a political consciousness.

Having said that, it is evident that the Puea Thai Party, despite it's figurehead and his tainted record, is still the lesser evil at the ballot box with no other viable political alternative present at the moment. A vote for the Democrat Party is a vote for the military-dominated status quo, a vote for the opposition is the potential return of social gifts but also a polarizing figurehead - but then again, you could also give up on democracy and not vote at all, as the yellow shirts have decided recently.