The verbal warfare being waged in full view of the world between Thaksin Shinawatra and Prawit Wongsuwan is disturbing. Even more worrying is that it’s only a taste of what’s to come. Pro-military and pro-Thaksin camps are furiously trading reports of the “war”, but none of them has pointed out the inconvenient truth, which is that we are looking at just the tip of the iceberg.
The whole episode exposes the ugly truth of Thai politics, where key appointments reek of lobbying and nepotism that override meritocracy and ignore the public interest. And where people in power demand gratitude and loyalty for something they were supposed to do anyway.
Former prime minister Thaksin tweeted that Deputy PM Prawit was no longer the man who had humbly “clung to my table and begged for the top Army post”. The media went into overdrive, which escalated to a frenzy when the former Army chief shot back that he wasn’t the one who had caused a national rift and that Thaksin should focus on his own failings. Missing from the coverage was any mention of the longstanding scourge of appointments based on nepotism, dubious connections and lobbying.
Prawit did indeed become Army commander-in-chief when Thaksin was prime minister. Only the two of them know for sure whether the general actually did “beg” for the top job and in what manner exactly. Thai Post ran an intriguing story suggesting that if the PM really did appoint someone chief of the armed forces simply because he pleaded for the job, then the real problem was the giver, not the recipient. “Thaksin exposes himself”, read the Thai Post headline for a report that effectively condemned the lobbying culture.
This tradition of begging and granting favours is deep-rooted in Thai politics and gives rise to all sorts of evils. The lobbying practice spawns bribery, inefficiency, corrupt partnerships and catastrophic revenge vendettas. “Connections” are what matters, while knowledge and performance go underrated. Last but not least, lobbying turns relations between mainstream politicians and the Armed Forces wayward and destructive.
The Thaksin-Prawit showdown only serves to confirm that the prime minister ousted by soldiers was once the military’s good friend. It’s well-documented that Thaksin’s telecom empire took off largely thanks to his connections with the military when he was an ambitious businessman seeking to launch satellites.
Some of the men Thaksin allegedly owes a debt of gratitude include the coup-makers. So, anyone who thinks that the stand-off between the Shinawatras and the Thai military is rooted in ideological differences should think again.
In Thai politics, anybody can lobby anybody and “ideology” is often the last thing on their mind. A “champion of democracy”, as Thaksin is called in some corners, is no exception. “I am what I am thanks to my ‘big brother’,” said one senior police official in an infamous reference to Thaksin. Meanwhile, late Air Chief Marshal Somboon Rahong was once given a Bt10 million Daimler as a gift from the ousted prime minister.
What happened between Thaksin and Prawit is in the past, but the past is about to erupt in the present. A crucial Thai election is just months away, and with the stakes sky-high for everyone, we can expect toxic horse-trading no matter who wins and who loses.
For starters, whoever aspires to become prime minister will need the support of small parties in order to get the 376 parliamentary votes required. This means just about anyone, regardless of their qualifications, can jockey for powerful posts in exchange for pledging their support to a prime ministerial nominee.
Thailand has seen countless unqualified people take up the education portfolio, for example. One reason for that is the prime minister did not see the importance of education. Another reason was the PM needed to pacify disgruntled supporters who had missed out on “bigger” Cabinet positions, which went to those with greater bargaining power.
Such appointments – based on the lobbying culture or the “need” to repay favours – dragged down governments’ abilities to serve the public interest. A PM might have demanded a free hand in picking, say, the finance minister, but the whole governing apparatus was riddled with inefficient administrators all the same.
The media normally responds to Cabinet appointments with loud dismay, but nothing changes. Unless the givers and receivers start exposing one another, that is.
Society’s forgiving attitude has helped prolong this rottenness at the core of politics. Many of us are worrying too much about when the election will be held. The bigger concern is what kind of government we get after we have voted.