In Other Words

Southeast Asia’s New Strongman

Kho Khit Duai Khon: Thamklang Krasae Khit Mai Tham Mai (Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" is All the Rage) By Choemsak Pinthong 312 pages, Bangkok: Kho Khit Duai Khon Press, 2003 (in Thai) From a Southeast Asian perspective, the region’s emergence as a major theater in the war on terrorism is ...

Kho Khit Duai Khon: Thamklang Krasae Khit Mai Tham Mai
(Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" is All the Rage)
By Choemsak Pinthong
312 pages, Bangkok: Kho Khit Duai Khon Press, 2003 (in Thai)

From a Southeast Asian perspective, the region’s emergence as a major theater in the war on terrorism is doubly regrettable. Once again, Southeast Asia is seen as a zone of insecurity and instability. More importantly, the focus on terrorism is diverting attention from a critical debate about the region’s future. This debate concerns the prospects for political pluralism, the foundations of economic growth, and the region’s place on the international stage. Few outside Southeast Asia realize just how slow it has been to rebound from the financial crisis of the late 1990s. Political disarray, economic uncertainty, and above all, lost self-confidence continue to dog the region.

Thailand has addressed these problems two ways. First, it has invested much hope and energy in a process of political reform mandated by its "people’s constitution," which was adopted in October 1997. The new constitution was originally conceived both as a means of curbing the influence of money politics on Thailand’s nascent democracy and as a response to a brief return to military rule in 1991-92. The collapse of the Thai baht in July 1997 and the economic crisis that ensued made political reform all the more urgent and ratification of the people’s constitution inevitable. The new charter’s major provisions include direct, nonpartisan elections to the Thai Senate, previously an appointive body; a party-list system to fill one fifth of the seats in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives; and the creation of independent regulatory agencies to monitor elections, check corruption, and adjudicate constitutional questions.

The second, more dramatic response came in early 2001, when Thai voters handed power to Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") Party — TRT for short. A retired police officer and telecommunications tycoon whose background and style frequently evoke comparisons to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Thaksin secured an unprecedented absolute parliamentary majority by campaigning under the slogan khit mai tham mai, or "Think New, Act New." TRT’s platform combined economic nationalism with populist politics. The party pledged to liberate the Thai economy from the whims of international capitalism, offered a three-year moratorium on farm debt, and promised nominal charges of only 30 baht (about 73 cents) per visit for medical treatment at hospitals and clinics.

In almost three years as prime minister, Thaksin has transformed Thai politics. His domination of parliament is complete, and of the media nearly so. He has promoted allies to key positions in Thailand’s military. Thaksin’s government has effectively co-opted or neutralized most of the independent watchdog agencies created under the new constitution. His economic program, dubbed "Thaksinomics," an explicit repudiation of the policies prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and pursued by his predecessor Chuan Likphai, seems to have brought about sustained economic growth — growth driven mainly by domestic demand rather than foreign investment. In turn, the economy’s performance has won many converts to Thaksin’s brand of strongman leadership. Apparently inspired by the examples of Singapore and Malaysia, where one-party rule has long prevailed and political life is tightly circumscribed, Thaksin has voiced a desire to see TRT remain in power for decades to come.

In the meantime, the prime minister has also carved out a substantial role for himself on the regional stage (by, among other things, making Thailand a full partner in China’s effort to build its influence in Southeast Asia). Indeed, with the retirement in October of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and the imminent retirement of Singapore’s Goh Chok Tong, Thaksin is now poised to become Southeast Asia’s senior statesman.

Increasingly cowed, resigned, exhausted, and awed, critics of the government — those willing to voice their disapproval in public, anyway — are dwindling in number. But the short essays in Choemsak Pinthong’s Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" Is All The Rage show that not all of Thaksin’s opponents have given up just yet. A Stanford-trained economist and longtime faculty member at Bangkok’s prestigious Thammasat University, Choemsak won election to the Thai Senate in 2000. His success at the polls was partly due to the decade he had spent as a producer and host of a series of highly regarded weekly discussion and interview programs. In particular, his program Mong Tang Mum, or "Looking from Different Perspectives," revolutionized public affairs television in Thailand with a format that brought together prominent personalities for serious, freewheeling discussions of the issues of the day and permitted members of the studio audience to pose direct questions to guests.

On entering the Senate, Choemsak began calling attention to official malfeasance and ethical impropriety. He gave evidence in a case brought against Thaksin in which the prime minister was accused of concealing assets. Thaksin was ultimately exonerated, and shortly thereafter, Choemsak and his programs were taken off the state-owned television stations on which they had long appeared. He thus wrote Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" Is All The Rage both as a critic and casualty of "Think New, Act New" Thailand.

At the heart of Choemsak’s book are three letters posthumously addressed to Dr. Puai Uengphakon. A former governor of the Bank of Thailand and rector of Thammasat University, Puai was the father of the Thai human rights movement and the most articulate proponent of liberal democracy during the era of military dictatorship spanning the 1950s to the 1970s. Puai fled Thailand during a bloody military coup in October 1976 and spent the final 23 years of his life in Great Britain. Among his bequests to Thailand was a largely American-trained technocracy, which was partly the fruit of Puai’s long collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation. Choemsak himself was the beneficiary of a Rockefeller grant while in graduate school. 

Choemsak’s letters to Puai chronicle Thaksin’s successful intimidation of the Thai media; the government’s use of the Anti-Money Laundering Office to investigate members of the press, NGO activists, and other critics; government interference in the work of independent constitutional bodies; police violence in suppressing demonstrations against a proposed Thai-Malaysian natural gas pipeline; and the extra-judicial killings of several thousand suspected drug dealers earlier this year.

The three letters quote extensively from Puai’s writings and speeches during the 1970s, a clever device meant to draw a connection between Thaksin’s authoritarianism and the previous period of strongman rule. To many Thais, that era is now ancient history. Their reference point is the late 1980s and early 1990s, when both parliamentary democracy and the economy flourished in tandem, and they see Thaksin not as a throwback to the days of military rule but as a leader who can restore the optimism of the boom years. In drawing on Puai’s words and ideas, Choemsak shrewdly links Thaksin’s Thailand to the Thailand of 30 years ago. He reminds his compatriots of the liberal democratic aspirations of that earlier time and suggests that the 1997 constitution promised the fulfillment of those aspirations.

In addition to Choemsak’s own writings, Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" Is All The Rage includes an essay on Thaksinomics by the author’s long-time mentor, Ammar Siamwalla, the Harvard-educated dean of Thai economists. Ammar’s warnings about the fiscal recklessness and easy credit policies at the heart of Thaksinomics have earned him the prime minister’s public contempt. In his contribution to the book, Ammar highlights the inadequacy of Thailand’s legal and financial institutions, suggests that another financial crisis is a real possibility, and argues that Thaksinomics could thus prove quite costly to Thai taxpayers. Sober and clear-headed, his comments stand in marked contrast not only to Thaksin’s blue-sky pronouncements but also to the economy’s recent performance.

Choemsak published Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" Is All The Rage easy to find: Just a day or two after its release, I was able to buy a copy at a Tesco-Lotus hypermarket in the southern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Nevertheless, reaction to the book has been muted. Part of the reason may be that Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" Is All The Rage takes a few peculiar detours, including one essay recounting some of the fine meals Choemsak has enjoyed around the country and another one offering advice to young Thais on the occasion of Valentine’s Day. These odd twists give the book a self-indulgent quality and detract from its seriousness.

But surely the bigger problem is that Thaksin is an enormously popular figure and Choemsak’s critique has become familiar and even tiresome to many Thais. The apparent futility of trying to stand in Thaksin’s way has turned opposition into resignation. This neglect of Choemsak’s book is a shame. In invoking Puai, Choemsak offers a vision of Thailand radically different from Thaksin’s, a vision whose importance to the debate over Thailand’s future, and Southeast Asia’s future, transcends the specific criticisms leveled against the prime minister.

In June, just a week after Let Me Think, Too: When "Think New, Act New" Is All The Rage was published, Thaksin met with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House. The Oval Office discussion was preceded by the loudly trumpeted — and conveniently timed — arrest earlier the same day of three Thais allegedly involved with Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terrorist group linked to al Qaeda. The visit focused on terrorism, security cooperation, and bilateral trade. Observers back home could only marvel at Thaksin’s ability to have his way as easily in Washington as he does in Bangkok.

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