Can the ‘Con Man’ continue to con?

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Whither Thaksin now that the scales have dropped from foreign eyes?

The phone-ins have stopped, but the interviews with foreign media have become more frequent. Thaksin Shinawatra, however, must be finding his international interviewers less friendly nowadays. Political turbulence in Bangkok has damaged his reputation as much as it has his motherland, and Thaksin’s flipflopping about what he wants for Thailand doesn’t help. One day he begs for HM the King to intervene and bring back peace; the next day he threatens bigger violence if action is taken against protest leaders.

The international media have been heavily relied upon to push Thaksin’s claims about red-shirted protesters’ deaths during the April 13 crackdown. In more than one TV interview, Thaksin displayed photos of a wounded man who he said had been killed. Thai media, however, traced the man in the photos to a hospital where he was found alive and being treated for a gunshot wound. He had been reportedly shot with a pistol.

The past week has seen growing international scepticism about Thaksin’s motives. In a comment section below a video of Thaksin’s interview with france24.com, a few foreigners called him a big liar. Several interviewers asked him directly if he was responsible for inciting riots in the Thai capital, and one news agency asked him bluntly if he was still committed to his vow to come back to Thailand and fight alongside his supporters if the armed forces opened fire on them.

Yet, despite Thaksin’s declining popularity with the foreign media, a battle between two schools of thought is still raging: has he been manipulating his poor supporters for his own interests, or have his enemies been manipulating his flaws to restrict the voice of the poor? This was the question that preceded the 2006 coup and is still hotly debated after Thailand has averted what could have been its biggest national tragedy.

The Economist, while stating that Thaksin has been exposed as “a demagogue who is ready to incite a revolt”, says a widespread feeling of injustice among the rural poor “is unlikely to dissipate and could easily ignite again”. That was just a little more than a slap on Thaksin’s wrist, and the magazine’s views certainly reflect Thai academics’ thinking that, despite himself, Thaksin has somehow let out a political genie that can’t be put back into the lamp. Having been politically passive for too long, the grass roots have tasted a political fight and seem to love it.

Yet if Thaksin is really “exposed”, he may be giving the rest of the world a new test. The 2006 coup and questionable treatment of his political party by the Thai judiciary have somewhat overshadowed charges of corruption and his virtual contempt for democratic checks and balances. With his role before, during and after the latest Thai turmoil, it will be interesting to see whether his largely overlooked flaws come under real scrutiny this time.

At least the inconsistency should be evident. He called for a revolution but distanced himself from the taxi-drivers’ seizure of the Victory Monument. He begged HM the King for peace but within 24 hours vowed there could be more violence. He pledged total loyalty to the monarchy in one phone-in but in the next jokingly asked his supporters whether they had been “attacked” by artificial rain, generally known as HM the King’s scientific passion. And at least in one interview, his key strategist Jakrapob Penkair virtually claimed that rampaging mobs were out of the control of protest-organisers, whereas in reality it was the protest leaders who asked demonstrators at Government House to “help” those being pushed back from key intersections by security forces.

If a corrupt Thaksin was tolerated by the democratic world, how will a pro-violence Thaksin be treated? He has been lucky that, despite breaking his vow to come back if his followers were attacked, most in the red-shirt movement still do not feel abandoned by him, although second-tier leaders like Jakrapob have been heavily criticised for disappearing in the4 face of arrest warrants.

Will Thaksin still be lucky on the world stage? Strange but true, his die-hard fans must be finding it easier to defend him by talking about anything else and avoiding mentioning him in their arguments.

So, the global chase for that elusive Thai morality will continue, with complications added. It used to be a simple case of a rich and corrupt politician who happened to win landslide elections and was kicked out of power by enemies who were probably as questionable. Now that same politician has resorted to an eye-for-an-eye strategy that nearly doomed his country and may have already condemned his nation to a longer period of economic woe with a collective shattered reputation.

The global community can take its time with this “con man”, a past label put on Thaksin by The Economist, which is now blaming other institutions for the Thai crisis. Time, however, is a luxury Thailand doesn’t have.

Editorial,  The Nation Opinion

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