In a country where people pride themselves on tranquility and deference, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra shows little of either trait.
Thaksin, a former policeman who got rich in the telecommunications business, is out front and boastful, asserting that Thailand can serve as the leader of a newly vibrant Southeast Asia. He is the region's modern man, he says.
But complaints about an increasingly authoritarian style and perceptions that his government's decisions benefit his family's financial interests have taken the sheen off the region's rising star.
His most immediate political problems center on unrest in the Muslim-dominated south and anger over his government's failure to warn about the outbreak of Asian bird flu even though officials knew the disease was at hand.
In the capital, intellectuals refer to Thaksin as the Berlusconi of Asia, a reference to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a business tycoon who has faced continuing accusations of conflict of interest.
Thaksin ran his corporation as a one-man show, and he runs the country the same way, his critics assert. He has tightened his grip on television, radio and the newspapers -- leaving few news outlets free of political influence.
"He doesn't have a democratic instinct," said Ammar Siamalla, one of the country's leading economists.
Asked by Thai reporters about the growing criticism, Thaksin responded, "Decisiveness isn't dictatorship." Anyway, he said, his wife, Pojamarn, a general's daughter and businesswoman, always keeps him in check.
"The Thais have my wife as a warning machine," he said.
The US added to the criticism recently, saying in its annual human rights report that the Thaksin government had killed many civilians during its crackdown on drug trafficking last year.
In response, Thaksin called the US a "useless friend," perhaps implying that Washington should be more grateful for Thailand's contribution of nearly 500 troops in Iraq.
In many respects, Thaksin, 54, who has a degree in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University in Texas and recently wore a watermelon pink shirt to a Cabinet meeting, has delivered on his election promises.
Thailand's economy was one of the standouts in Asia last year, growing by more than 6 percent. With steady demand from China for electronic parts, petrochemicals and rubber, Thailand can expect even higher growth this year, said Supavud Saicheun, chief of research at Phatra Securities.
In a major face-lift for the country, Thaksin is pushing ahead on plans for Heaven City, a satellite city intended as a smog-free alternative to the traffic-choked capital. He says he will replace the worn-out international airport, and he wants to upgrade the railways. He has challenged the Thai auto industry to become the Detroit of the region, and he has urged Thailand's little-known fashion designers to elevate Bangkok to become the Paris of the East.
Along with the increased public spending, he has encouraged easy credit for corporations and consumers. He has provided the nation's 70,000 villages with a system of microcredits and introduced almost free health care at hospitals.
These programs have increased his popularity: He is regarded as the first Thai prime minister to act on behalf of the poor. But the programs have not worked smoothly.
Villagers in Thaksin's home area around the northern city of Chiang Mai say many poor people have run up large debts because they have little understanding of the obligations of borrowing.
Tong Taan Wong, 66, a shopkeeper, said he resigned from his village's loan committee because he did not want to be involved in the unpopular cause of debt collection.
In Bangkok, nepotism is a major concern. The prime minister's cousin, General Chaiyasit Shina-watra, is now commander in chief of the army. One of Thaksin's sisters, Yaowapha Wongsawat, heads a faction within the governing Thai Rak Thai Party. Another sister, Yaovares Shinawatra, is the leader of the National Council of Women.
Somkiat Tangkitvanich, an economist and a research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute, recently completed a study of how political connections affected Thai businesses. His analysis showed that companies on the Bangkok stock exchange in which the Shin Corp, the Thaksin family's company, owned significant holdings, did spectacularly better last year than other listed companies, including those whose major shareholders included families of Cabinet members.
Further, Somkiat said, a government decree effectively barred the liberalization of the telecommunications industry, which is dominated by the Thaksin family company. The decree added an excise tax on new telecommunication companies.
Media under pressure
Since Thaksin took office, news organizations have come under intense pressure from the government. The editor of the influential English-language daily, The Bangkok Post, Veera Pratheepchaikul, was removed last month after the newspaper ran articles critical of Thaksin. Other journalists and editors have been dismissed. The family of a senior Cabinet member has become a major stockholder of a second English-language daily, The Nation.
Asked about the assertion that the government policies favored the prime minister's family interests, Thaksin's spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair, said: "The prime minister wants the economy to be better off because then everyone benefits. He compares the economy to a container. When it rains, a big container collects more water, a small container less."
Giving a rendition of trickle-down economics, Jakrapob said those who had a big container in the economy -- the wealthy -- received "more reward" but those with a small container also benefited.
Somkiat, the economist who studied the Thaksin administration, said, "I'd say Thaksin has the only container."
EVOLVING SITUATION: Of the latest cases, 23 percent were found to be asymptomatic, but the coronavirus strain in Da Nang is more contagious, authorities said A COVID-19 outbreak that began in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang more than a week ago has spread to at least four city factories with a combined workforce of about 3,700, state media reported yesterday. Four cases were found at the plants in different industrial parks in the central city that collectively employ 77,000 people, the Lao Dong newspaper said. Vietnam, praised widely for its decisive measures to combat the novel coronavirus since it first appeared in late January, is battling new clusters of infection having gone for more than three months without detecting any domestic transmissions. Authorities yesterday reported one new
‘COVIDIOTS’: Politicians condemned the protest that came amid surging infections in the country, while a marcher said government-induced fear weakened the body Loudly chanting their opposition to masks and vaccines, thousands of people on Saturday gathered in Berlin to protest against COVID-19 restrictions before being dispersed by police. Police put turnout at about 20,000 — well below the 500,000 organizers had announced as they urged a “day of freedom” from months of virus curbs. Despite Germany’s comparatively low toll, authorities are concerned at a rise in infections over the past few weeks and politicians took to social media to criticize the rally as irresponsible. “We are the second wave,” shouted the crowd, a mixture of hard left and right and conspiracy theorists, as they converged
The Australian government yesterday said that it plans to give Google and Facebook three months to negotiate with media businesses fair pay for news content. In releasing a draft of a mandatory code of conduct, Canberra aims to succeed where other nations have failed in making tech firms pay for news siphoned from commercial media companies. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said that Google and Facebook would be the first platforms targeted by the proposed legislation, but others could follow. “It’s about a fair go for Australian news media businesses, it’s about ensuring that we have increased competition, increased consumer protection and a sustainable
SURGE CONTINUES: India recorded its steepest spike of more than 57,000 new virus cases in 24 hours, as Vietnam went from no virus deaths to reporting three South Korean prosecutors yesterday arrested the elderly leader of a secretive religious sect as part of an investigation into allegations that the church hampered the government’s COVID-19 response after thousands of worshipers were infected in February and March. Prosecutors in the central city of Suwon have been questioning 88-year-old Lee Man-hee, chairman of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, over charges that the church hid some members and underreported gatherings to avoid broader quarantines. The Suwon District Court granted prosecutors’ request to arrest Lee over concerns that he could temper with evidence. Lee and his church have steadfastly denied the accusations, saying they are