Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Asia now in the age of Thaksin

With the recent retirement of Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamed, Southeast Asia is short of senior statesmen. Can Thailand's prime minister fill the leadership vacuum?

By Thitinan Pongsudhirak

ILLUSTRATION: JUNE HSU

The retirements from frontline politics of Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew(李光耀) and Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed have deprived Southeast Asia of its senior leaders. Can Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra fill the regional leadership vacuum?

A series of bold foreign-policy strokes -- the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the Economic Cooperation Strategy for the development of mainland Southeast Asia, and the US' designation of Thailand as a "major non-NATO ally" -- turned the international spotlight on Thaksin during his first term. Violence in Thailand's predominantly Muslim south seemed to dent his ambitions last year, but his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party's landslide victory last February gave his bid for regional leadership a new lease on life.

With the TRT capturing over 75 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, Thaksin is now politically invincible at home. Indeed, he has become the first elected Thai leader to finish a four-year term, be re-elected, and preside over a one-party government. Thaksin's dominance of Thai politics is unprecedented, and his resilient popularity in the face of a fickle electorate is unparalleled.

Apart from his complete control of domestic politics, Thaksin commands other prerequisites of regional leadership. Already eyeing a third term, he can count on political longevity on the order of Mahathir's 22-year rule. Notwithstanding the one-party system that the TRT is cultivating, Thaksin is armed with democratic legitimacy in a global arena bent on democracy promotion, and he speaks English decently enough to articulate his views and vision to a global audience.

He even has his own development strategy, dubbed "Thaksinomics," a self-styled approach that blends neo-liberal export-led growth with grassroots-based domestic demand. The Thai economy emerged out of its post-1997 crisis doldrums under Thaksin's watch, and is now firmly positioned on a 6 percent annual growth trajectory. While it relies on profligate subsidies and cash handouts, Thaksinomics also banks on structural reforms to propel economic growth.

The strategy's most promising prospects include the promotion of industrial upgrading, niche industries, and competitiveness-boosting cluster projects that aim to make Thailand a global and regional hub for food, fashion, tourism, automobiles, and healthcare. A vibrant economy -- GDP growth is second only to China's in Asia -- is indispensable for regional leadership.

Of the policies that will determine his future role in the region, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue and Economic Cooperation Strategy stand out. Based on the concept of "Asia for Asians," the nascent ACD's membership straddles the Asian landmass from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East, with Thailand at the geographic center. Although its future directions are uncertain, this 26-member forum trumps Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the ASEAN, and ASEAN Plus Three, which includes China, Japan, and South Korea.

The region-wide crisis in 1997, weak progress on free trade, and the region's security vulnerabilities have made Thaksin aware of ASEAN's limitations. As Indonesia's size makes it a natural leader of ASEAN, the ACD lends Thaksin a broader platform that stresses Thailand's geographical advantages. It allows him to trumpet Thailand's strategic objectives and the region's major issues, sometimes in confrontation with the interests and the demands of the West. Within the ACD framework, Thaksin launched the US$1 billion "Asia Bond" last year in an effort to match Asia's financial capital with its financing requirements.

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