Thu, Feb 03, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Thai PM faces post-election challenges abroad

DPA , Bangkok

With the ruling Thai Rak Thai party expecting a clean triumph at the polls on Sunday, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has little to worry about on the home front.

His main challenges over the next four years are more likely to come from abroad, analysts say.

"I think Thaksin's got the domestic situation all wrapped up, so he'll have to look to the international arena if he wants to make a mark in his second term," said Kobsak Chutikul, a former Foreign Ministry spokesman-turned-politician.

It is widely expected that the Thai Rak Thai will win more than 300 of the 500 contested seats in Sunday's general election, giving Thaksin and his party a clear mandate to pursue their own domestic policies.

Pursuing Thaksin's often ambitious goals abroad may prove more problematic. There are signs that his autocratic, authoritarian style has already irked some of Thailand's neighbors.

For instance, Thaksin's push to turn Thailand into a regional center for a regional tsunami early warning system in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 disaster was shot down at an international conference last weekend.

Among the chief objectors to Thailand's bid to take center stage was Indonesia.

A peeved Thaksin announced on Monday that Thailand would go ahead with setting up its own early warning system with or without regional cooperation.

"Some countries are concerned too much about themselves and are less concerned about the region," he said.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has made clear its foreign policy goal of regaining more of a leadership role in the ASEAN, which it has lost since the fall of Suharto, another autocratic Asian leader.

ASEAN has a long history of autocratic leaders who transformed their countries from chaotic backwaters into successful modern economies, as Lee Kuan-yew (李光耀) did for Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad did for Malaysia.

Suharto, Lee and Mahathir, all powerful personalities, also emerged as leaders within ASEAN, a role Thaksin clearly aspires to as well.

"He doesn't want to be a leader of a developing country," said one Western diplomat. "He considers himself leading an up-and-coming industrialized country, and considers Thailand to be a leader in the region."

Thailand may be a leader economically -- certainly it has recovered quicker from the 1997 Asian financial crisis than Indonesia -- but it will take more than economic and business clout to lead ASEAN politically, observers note.

Thaksin annoyed neighboring Malaysia with his accusations last year that it was sheltering Muslim separatists responsible for the rising tensions in Thailand's three southernmost, predominantly Muslim, provinces where more than 600 people died in violent clashes last year.

With the southern problem far from settled, Thaksin can look forward to tense relations with predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia in the near future.

And Thailand's fairly close relationship with Myanmar, cultivated by Thaksin, could turn into a major ASEAN embarrassment if the country's military leadership does not free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest by next year, when Myanmar will chair the regional grouping.

Another tough challenge for Thaksin will be his campaign to make Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai a candidate to replace UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is scheduled to retire in 2007. Surakiart's chances to be named UN chief are deemed slim.

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