Why this Thai coup matters

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Thaksin Shinawatra1 Reuters. An anti-government protester holds a placard against ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra as she waits with others to move from the Lumpini park to their new location near the Government House in Bangkok May 12, 2014. Thailand's beleaguered government on Sunday warned people to stay away from anti-government protests, saying it had to step up security as the two sides in a lengthy political crisis squared off over who is running the country.

Thaksin Shinawatra is living proof that leaders get the popularity thing all wrong.

From US President Barack Obama to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, they try governing well, articulating a vision and inspiring – and their approval ratings plummet.

Thailand’s Thaksin tried a different approach. From 2001 to 2006, the tycoon broke laws, lined his pockets, neutered courts and was even accused of crimes against humanity in a war against drugs, then fled overseas in 2008 to avoid prison.

Yet almost eight years after being ousted as prime minister, he couldn’t be more popular among his “Red Shirt” supporters from the poorer north-east.

And that’s what makes this latest Thai coup arguably more dangerous than 12 earlier military takeovers in the past eight decades.

Never mind that no one outside the army chiefs who grabbed power on Thursday can explain why a coup was necessary. In 2008, the Red Shirts who rallied around Thaksin were a ragtag bunch.

Today, they’re organised, politically aware, better financed and raring for a fight.

They’ve spent recent years building political networks and mobilising supporters – efforts that put a Thaksin avatar in the prime minister’s office in 2011, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra (ousted on May 7 by the courts).

Even though several Red Shirt leaders have been arrested, their political machine is churning into action.

As Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University said: “The opposition and resistance to the coup will likely be strong.”

Why does Thaksin still inspire such loyalty after all this time? My take is that rural Thais have a surreally romanticised view of his populist “Thaksinomics” programme.

Thaksin effectively bribed communities around the nation with waves of public largesse – cash, subsidies, moratoriums on debt payments and other goodies.

But the money did little to create balanced and sustainable growth – which is what Thaksin’s followers really need.

The handouts were a giant smokescreen to distract supporters while Thaksin weakened governing institutions in Bangkok to enrich himself and his cronies.

If Thailand had an effective political opposition, one would think they’d be able to expose the hollowness of Thaksin’s programmes in an election.

Instead, by intervening yet again, the Thai military is perceived to be doing the bidding of the Bangkok elite, the royalist “Yellow Shirts”.

The odds of a credible election that heals Thailand’s wounds over the next few years are in the single digits right now.

Yet there is no other means of establishing a stable government that the international community and the Red Shirts will accept.

Asian markets are largely ignoring this week’s events in Bangkok, figuring we’ve seen this before.

But Thursday’s coup demonstrates a level of political dysfunction that’s gradually pulling Thailand in the direction of Egypt and Tunisia.

Rather than end Thailand’s political nightmare, this coup could drive the country towards whole new levels of chaos. – Bloomberg


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