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

Sun, Feb 03, 2013 - Page 9

Millions of people across the globe have cut the tethers to their offices, working remotely from home, airport lounges or just about anywhere they can get an Internet connection. However, the political party governing Thailand has taken telecommuting into an altogether different realm.

For the past year and a half, by the party’s own admission, the most important political decisions in this country of 65 million people have been made from abroad, by a former leader who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to escape corruption charges.

The country’s most famous fugitive, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, circles the globe in his private jet, chatting with ministers over his dozen cellphones, texting over various social media platforms and reading government documents e-mailed to him from civil servants, party officials say.

It might be described as rule by Skype. Or governance by instant messenger, a way for Thaksin to help run the country without having to face the warrant for his arrest in a case that many believe is politically motivated.

His (remote control) return to power, even if somewhat limited by distance, is a remarkable turnaround for the brash telecommunications billionaire who was deposed in a military coup in 2006, the catalyst for several years of brinkmanship between critics and supporters that led to four changes of government and violent street protests that left nearly 100 people dead.

Officially, his sister, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is the leader (he nominated her for the job in 2011). However, from his homes in Dubai and London, from the gold mines he owns in Africa and during regular visits to nearby Asian countries, Thaksin, 63, has harnessed the Internet and mobile technology to create one of the most unusual ways of governing a country.

“We can contact him at all hours,” said Thai Minister of the Interior Charupong Ruangsuwan, who is also secretary-general of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party. “The world has changed. It’s a boundless world. It’s not like 100 years ago when you had to use a telegraph.”

To illustrate the point during an interview, Charupong took out his iPhone and scrolled through a list of phone numbers for Thaksin. (Thaksin gives different numbers to different people, often depending on seniority, party officials say).

“If we’ve got any problem, we give him a call,” Charupong said.

Thaksin himself declined to talk by phone, or Skype, for this article.

The day-to-day governance of the country is carried out by Yingluck, who is genial, photogenic and 18 years younger than Thaksin. She cuts the ribbons and makes the speeches.

Yingluck, 45, has on occasion sought to play down her brother’s role. Soon after taking office, when Thaksin joined a weekly Cabinet meeting via Skype, reporters asked who was really the head of the government. Yingluck insisted that she was in charge and said Thaksin had joined the discussion to offer “moral support.” She has since consistently said she is in charge.

However, if there is one thing that allies and enemies of Thaksin agree on, it is that he is the one making the big decisions.

“He’s the one who formulates the Pheu Thai policies,” said Noppadon Pattama, a senior official in Thaksin’s party who also serves as his personal lawyer. “Almost all the policies put forward during the last election came from him.”

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.

While Thaksin’s role in making appointments and setting policy is unusual by the standards of other democracies, voters knew what they were getting. His Pheu Thai Party’s widely publicized slogan during the 2011 election campaign was: “Thaksin thinks; Pheu Thai does.”