Sun, Feb 03, 2013 - Page 9 News List

In Thailand, power is wielded via Skype

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has utilized the Internet and mobile technology to govern the country from the skies, although his younger sister is officially in charge

By Thomas Fuller  /  NY Times News Service, BANGKOK

Sondhi Limthongkul, a leader of the “yellow shirt” movement that has taken to the streets many times to demonstrate against Thaksin, agreed, saying: “He’s running the whole show.”

“If you want a huge project in Thailand worth billions of baht, you have to talk to Thaksin,” Sondhi, who seemed resigned to the turn of events, said in an interview.

Besides Skype, Thaksin uses various social media applications, including WhatsApp and Line, to keep in touch with the leaders of the party, senior party members say.

Many of the Skype sessions are reported in the Thai media. This month, Thaksin had a video chat to discuss the coming elections for governor in Bangkok. The one-hour video chat made news because party officials reported that Thaksin had told his colleagues that it did not matter whom they nominated, because even a utility pole would defeat the opposition.

Thaksin remains a divisive figure. He retains a large and passionate following, especially among people in the Thai hinterland whom he championed as prime minister. His critics among the urban elite are equally adamant. They are still fearful that he and his party will upset the “status quo” that benefits them, but are also angered by what they call his penchant for mixing the affairs of state with the expansion of his business empire and by his domineering personality.

However, with Thailand’s economy doing well despite the global slump and its vaunted tourism industry doing even better than before the unrest, critics have been less able to drag anyone to the streets — even as they acknowledge that the man they long tried to drive from power is ruling from afar.

Thaksin’s political revival also fits in some ways with politics in Thailand, which can be difficult to explain to outsiders because it sometimes sounds too implausible to be true.

The general who led the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin is now a member of parliament and chairman of the reconciliation committee.

The country’s former “sauna king,” who made a fortune operating illegal massage parlors, is now an anticorruption crusader who regularly exposes illegal gambling dens.

The paradox for Thailand today is that, despite its current odd governing arrangement, the country is enjoying what Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University and one of the country’s leading political thinkers, calls “a kind of uneasy accommodation.”

“There are two ways you can look at this: You can make it into a farce, a ridiculous situation and the butt of a lot of jokes. The brother is pressing the buttons and the sister is a puppet,” Thitinan said in an interview. “But I’m beginning to take a slightly different view. This may be the best way to run Thailand.”

Many Thais believe that it might be better, both for Thaksin and the country, if he stayed abroad so that passions are not rekindled.

Charupong, the interior minister, says Thaksin’s distance gives him a useful perspective and likened him to the coach of a soccer team (in this case, the Cabinet).

Elaborating on the upsides of having the brother-sister team in charge, he said: “It’s like we have a prime minister in the country and another prime minister overseas and we work together. This is our strength.”

For some decisions, Thaksin insists on meeting in person. He regularly summons politicians to meetings at his Dubai home and at hotels in Hong Kong, which he visits frequently, and it is a given in Thai politics today that anyone who wants an important job in government must fly to see Thaksin.

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