First of all, the Thais wholeheartedly would agree without any hesitant that it is nice to look at Prime Minister Yinluck Shinawatra due to her photogenic face which closely linked to her above average approval rating. Indeed, she has made very good use of her appearance. Never mind that she does not have anything to say; and more precisely that she has quite a unique style of leadership—no leadership whatsoever. With her charm, the media, both electronic and prints, were so gullible in championing her visuals and body languages as effective ways to communicate what left unsaid. “Photos speak louder than words” is an apt description, especially in her case. For the past one year, more than any previous Thai prime ministers, she had the best visual coverage in all forms of media. She had more photos published engaging with the villagers and suffering public from the floods last year with her index finger pointed at troubled people and areas among others—as if her hand was a magic wand that was a panacea. Recently, she was praised a role model for mother and woman for the Thais as her love of her son was exemplary and her life’s devotion for the good of nation—not to mention as the country’s first female prime minister. That much is clear.
To top it all, during the past one year nearly every day went by with a full page ad in mainstream media on how great the government was with its populist policies. Media relations and ads agencies love the government as billions of baht have been allocated for long-term media campaigns to make the people feel in sync with the style of government under Yinluck to make sure she is well-connected to the Thais on the streets. The previous government was detach an stingy. Foreign TV channels proposed numerous plans to do publicity for Thailand. The answer was often in negative. This government welcomed publicity at any price.
Of late, attempts have been made to create an illusion that the current leader has a mind of her own and quite independent, especially from her brother, Thaksin Shinwatra. This impression has been given priority after the media-spin master Suranant Vejjajiva served as her personal secretary. He has become her most trusted aide in managing how the prime minister would say and do during the day and at the end of the day what would be the media impacts. He has done a superb job in elevating her profile. But one thing has not changed, whenever she faces challenges and unrehearsed situation, she remains passive. At the regular Cabinet meeting, she continues to be a convener, not as the leader.
To understand the rest of Yinluck government, one needs to under the American football’s playing tactics—defensive and offensive—which are used to gain yardages and score touchdowns. The government has been able to combine all these tactics with its key players: the Red-shirt members, academia, businessmen, bureaucrats, police and soldiers as part of the dream team akin to American football players setting traps on sidelines or end zones. Once the opponents get stuck on one of the formations, the team would score and move one—shift and change whenever possible. The never ending formations of defensive-offensive tactics have kept critics and pundits at bay. Worse, the Thai media have lost their ways in the labyrinth of deceptive schemes—whether it is the much vaulted reconciliation bill, the pledging of rice price or women’s development fund. The latest plan is the new operation center in Bangkok to manage the southern provinces to give another illusion that something were done to quell down the crisis. Last, there was reported negotiation with the separatists. Normally, the state players would enter inot such game when they have upper hands against the non-state actors. It does not make sense.
Well, whether the Thais deserve the leader such as this is out of question for now. Recent polls, both professional and unprofessional done, have yielded one common result: she is not such a bad leader and she should stay on. Any criticism against her now would be unfair and considered an insidious conspiracy after all she always said nice things without rubbing any eyebrow. That alone was her prime virtue during the past one year because the Thais have too much problems at hand to stay above the high cost of living—let alone trying to decipher what the prime minister would say. In fact, the absence of her views was a blessing in disguise as her predecessor suffered tremendously from insightful and intelligent comments. While his views were coherent and realistic but unfortunately they were not the music in the public ears. The Thais want to feel good with some money to spend on hands. In the rural areas, Bt10 or Bt20 can make quite a difference. Yinluck and her Pheu Thai Party has made sure that fund must be disperses quickly to them, even with a lot of pilfering along the way. Corruption is epidemic in this government but the Thais in general do not care as long as they have something in their hands albeit briefly. Short of that anything is not good.
In the previous government, the disposal of public funds was slow due to stringent rules which caused public resentments. The opposite is true, this government spent a great deal with ability to place spending hiding in various accounts—like crooked corporate auditors. So the government successfully fulfilled some of the 16 policy pledges announced the same week last year. Some of them are sloppy works—everything is a work in progress. Again, the Thais do not mind as long as they are implemented. Long-term negative consequence is not in their heads. Live and let live another day. Therefore, the government spins for day-to-day policies and enslaves the public mind that they are having a good life. Future has yet to come. There is no pay-back time with the current government—only way forward—because the Pheu Thai Party will always win the next election at any given time.
Even in foreign policy, the government is changing all the rules. Yinluck is very proud that she has transformed all the Thai ambassadors, who normally represent the Royal Court, into salespersons for the OTOP products overseas. No wonder some of important countries are now headed by diplomats cum supporters of her brother. In fact, some ambassadors are quite happy with this new task. Well, it is less stressful than trying to articulate the Thai political shenanigans and explain in plain English. Lots more are happening around Thailand in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos these days. For the past 65 years after the end of WWII, Thailand was considered the region’s prima donna that nobody could match—being the only independent country without colonization—no baggage. Unfortunately, the Thais have taken things for granted. Now the good days are over, all countries around Thailand have access to the same human resources and capitals without discriminations. They have pretty quick jump-start with clear directions. Furthermore, they have better stories to tell and their people are more eager and full of energy.
The Yinluck government wants the country to reach out to the world while she remains passive in communicating with the global community. Her coming speech at the United Nations at end of next month would be interesting to watch. She would attempt to describe how Thailand contends to be a facilitator for the rich and poor countries, the North and South as well as the big powers and small powers, et al. Thailand is traditionally very adroit with dangling from one side to others liked a willow bending with gentle or gutsy wind. Under her helm, Thailand is no longer aspired to lead—just wants to plug in with the rest of the world that would be good enough.