Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THAILAND: The Facts and F(r)ictions of Ruling

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

THAILAND: The Facts and F(r)ictions of Ruling

Article excerpt

Elected in January 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra went to the polls in early 2005 as the first elected Thai leader to serve a fiill term as prime minister. Although various crises in 2004 led to speculation of an early election, Thaksin's position was largely unassailable. This is not simply a story of individual triumph over circumstance; Thaksin's ascendancy and the possibility of a second-term consolidation illuminates much about post-reform Thailand. From the perspective of "democratic consolidation" a full term and succession by election demonstrates the habituation of democratic norms and conventions. Competing élites in Thailand now, seemingly, play by very minimal democratic rules of the game. Rumours of a coup d'etat have been rare, though not absent.1 Paradoxically, all the milestones towards this achievement have involved diminishing the quality of Thailand's fledgling liberal democracy, underwritten by the 1997 constitution.2 Previous chapters on Thailand in Southeast Asian Affairs have highlighted Thaksin's subversion of the institutions designed to check and balance the power of the political executive, deepening hostility and action against independent press, politicization of the nominally independent senate, and the normalization of extra-judicial killings.3 2004 witnessed an intensification of this democratic malaise, most notably in the deep South with the imposition of martial law in three southern provinces to quell a muddled mix of "separatist" and mafia-like violence. Thaksin's longevity under "democratic" rules has come at a time when shadowy state elements have exerted their presence in the south of Thailand and elsewhere, undermining the already tenuous constitutional nature of rule in Thailand. Despite this, Thaksin has gained praise from some observers for significant economic and diplomatic achievements in his first term in office.4

The Thaksin Project Continues

Economically speaking, Thailand has rarely experienced such an ambitious government as Thaksin's. Its approach has been worthy of its own nomenclature: "Thaksinomics" is now a standard phrase, "CEOism" is not far behind. The former term captures the government's "dual track" policy orientation of simultaneously pursuing export-led industrialization, fuelled by foreign direct investment (into, for example, the auto-industry), and the building of a domestic "backbone" economy in urban and rural areas. The domestic, Thaksin says, needs to have a "considerable degree of immunity to the risks associated with globalization and increased integration into the global economic system".5 "CEOism" captures the fact that Thaksin has embraced various management shibboleths and injected them into the bureaucracy and political realm. The basic component of Thaksin's Chief Executive Officer approach has been the importance of leadership, as if "voluntarist will" could shape economic, social, and political outcomes. The application of Thaksin's style of management in the context of the Thai bureaucracy has led to highly publicized ventures of social change, a rush of rhetoric, and then either embarrassed silence or a premature declaration of success, as in the "war on drugs". The complex task of organizing, adapting, and transforming the dynamic social formation of Thailand towards his business-driven ends has not been very susceptible to Thaksin's "leaderism". Thaksin, at least rhetorically, has waged a struggle against the bureaucraticcapitalist state and attendant predatory elements. However, his narrow managerial style has done little to uproot patterns of rule centred on clientelist networks. Consequently, he has fallen back on the forces and structures that he once declared he would transcend. In an important and persuasive analysis, McCargo and Ukrist detail how Thaksin has created a new political economy network linking military, bureaucratic, political and capitalist elements which rivals that of the former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. …

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