Cowboy politics

Yesterday in front of the American Chamber of Commerce, the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra professed his love for George W. Bush, saying that they were both “Texas-style politicians” since Thaksin went to some dinky college in Texas where some claim he got someone to write a PhD dissertation for him. “I am a cowboy too”, said the PM, according to the Nation newspaper. The Thai & American businessmen in the audience gave him a standing ovation. Yay!

There are so many reasons for being appalled and disappointed with this scene that it’s difficult to know where to start.

To begin with, the current government is run by a cabal of representatives of wealthy business families who are systematically re-writing the rules of the country to the benefit of their own families and businesses. Thaksin is the front man for this group, a long-time expert in using government to build his wealth; and someone who understands how to use modern media to spin, misdirect and outright lie for fun, profit, and power.

The guy made his first bundle of cash selling computers to the police department while he was still a policeman. Then, he gave big gifts to the military generals who controlled Thailand’s telecommunications at the time and in return got a monopoly mobile phone license that gave him an even bigger pile of cash. In Thailand, this is what passes for “successful businessm”.

Since he entered politics (when bribing generals wasn’t enough anymore), he’s promised to fix Bangkok’s traffic problems in 6 months, clean the canals in 2 years, and end poverty in 6 years. The deadlines for the first two are long gone, and we still have terrible traffic and dirty canals. As for the third, well, his “lend ’em money to buy phones and motorcycles” programs for the poor have doubled household debt in Thailand while increasing profits for his own company; while government banks are again swimming in dud loans (but at least KTB has funny commercials). In the meantime, his “health care for all” program has pushed 1/3 of public hospitals into near-bankruptcy.

But he takes credit for the economy growing, even though this was basically due to consumer spending that has increased debts, and large commodity exports to China that his government has nothing to do with. And so he looks to be headed to another election victory this January.

Nobody cares that 2,500 people were killed without trial during his “war on drugs”. Nobody cares about the 80 people killed being arrested in the South. Hell, when you’re busy folding origami birds, little things like government murders are hardly worth paying attention to.

But there are great things he’s done too – he thought of a “Thailand Elite” program, where if you pay $25,000, you get discounts for a lifetime and don’t have to wait on big immigration lines at the airport! He figured that if they can sell a million of these things, they’ll be sitting pretty. So far, they’ve sold about 300. Great businessman, yeah.

Oh, and recently, his government has mandated that discos don’t play music above 91 decibels. Because, you know, loud music in discos is a major source of death in Thailand. This from the mastermind who decided that the best way to save fuel without hurting the economy is to close shopping centers early, because shopping has nothing to do with the economy.

But American businesspeople love the guy – and why not? His “monopoly mafia” strategy (or “no crooks except my guys”) is making progress in streamlining corruption throughout the country. Now, instead of trying to figure out how many people you need to bribe and how much, in many cases there’s only one bribe to the cabal or the party, and the amounts are becoming standard. That’s transparency for you.

So – questionable academic achivement, history of using government connections to make money for himself, a string of failures and broken promises, and a likely re-election… no wonder he identifies with GW Bush.

The way this government works – a shiny coat that outsiders marvel at with a rotten core that very few see except for insiders who are busy looting the place before it all falls apart – it indeed “Texas style”, at least in terms of looking like that venerable Texan institution, Enron.

Get ready for a disaster in Thailand starting around 2006 or so.



4 Comments so far

  1. Paul (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 3:14 pm

    Did you see the article in the Nation a few days ago about how the Shinawqatra clan increased it’s wealth by 76% despite a general lull in the stock markets this year. Of course, it was mostly the sons & duaghters & wives of major politicians that grew wealthier, and not the politicians themselves, I particularly liked the article about how the PM’s spokesperson claimed he’s a a completely stand-up guy, right next to the timeline of major international contracts and orders that Shin Corp won shortly after various state visits that the PM made to different countries.

  2. scuba (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 4:18 pm

    General lull? Dude, the SET’s down about 15% this year – it’s the worst performing market in the world! Of course, that’s after the 2003 bubble – do you suppose anyone took cash of the table to finance elections? Naaah… The really sad thing is that nobody cares. So long as you can buy Shin stock and grab some crumbs as well, who cares if they come at the expense of building a competitive nation? It’s amazing to me how so many people think that the government’s job is to help their own personal business enterprises – “promoting” this or that industry, building a million “hubs” or what not- – that when politicians use their office to enrich their own families, it’s just natural. Government’s purpose is to protect the population and ensure justice, a level playing field for all – not pick favourites. That’s from the radical communist economist Adam Smith. So far, this gang of cronies is batting 0, just like their heroes in Washington DC.

  3. Ben Harris (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 4:21 pm

    I always joke that Central Group owns the half of Thailand that Thaksin doesn’t but it seems it might be closer to quarters :)

    I find it concerning that someone with so much business interest in Thailand is running the country and interesting that everyone voted him in. Maybe we should start a poll on what his failed political promises will be this time around.

  4. scuba (unregistered) on December 17th, 2004 @ 4:32 pm

    You’re absolutely right to be concerned. The most charitable description of Thaksin is that he is unable to understand the difference between his own interests and the country’s interests (this from a senior US diplomat who actually likes the guy). My more cynical take is that he doesn’t give a crap about the country and is just out to grab as much for himself and his family as he can, which I do believe is the case for his crony cabinet.

    His brilliance (like Thailand’s specialty generally, I think) is in marketing – creating a glitzy shiny outside that wows people. Look at how much visitors love Thailand and how grumpy so many expats are – all gloss, no substance. He’s bypassed the traditional village mafia system by using media and buying votes directly – why not support a guy who gives you free money? In the meantime, his company is getting into personal finance – how hard is it to see where his company buys up all the bad debt the government has made to the poor for a deep discount? That way, all the people in the country owe him money, or he gets all their stuff – how cool is that?

    Here’s my suggestion for yet another ridiculous promise – air condition the country.

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