Yingluck’s Thailand Losing Direction

It is easy is to judge the one-year-old Yingluck government—All you need is an understanding of media spin and the fast-moving defense-offense tactics of American football.

First of all, all Thais agree without any hesitation that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is easy on the eye—her photogenic face closely linked with an above average approval rating. Indeed, she has made very good use of her appearance.

Nevermind that she does not have anything to say in her unique brand of leadership—no leadership whatsoever. With her charm, the media, both electronic and print, has been so gullible in championing her appearance and body language as effective ways to communicate what is actually left unsaid.

“Photos speak louder than words” is an apt description. For the past year, more than any previous Thai prime minister, she has had the best visual coverage in all forms of media. She had masses of pictures published engaging with villagers and those suffering from last year’s floods with her index finger pointed at the needy as if it was a panacea.

Recently, she was praised as a role model for mothers and women generally for displaying an exemplary affection for her son and devotion to her nation—not to mention being Thailand’s first female prime minister.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

Kavi Chongkittavorn

To top it all, during the past year nearly every day has featured a full-page advert in the mainstream media to show how great the government was doing with its populist policies. Media relations and pr 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 Yingluck.

The previous government was detached and stingy in this regard. Foreign TV channels proposed numerous plans to ramp up publicity for Thailand, but the answer was usually negative. This government welcomes 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 is independent—especially from her infamous brother, Thaksin Shinwatra. This impression has been made a priority after media spin doctor Suranant Vejjajiva served as her personal secretary. He has become her most trusted aide in managing how she spends her day and the media impact afterwards.

He has done a superb job in elevating her profile. But one thing has not changed—whenever Yingluck faces challenges and unrehearsed situations, she remains passive. At regular cabinet meeting, she continues to be a convener rather than a leader.

The never-ending formations of defensive-offensive tactics have kept critics and pundits at bay. Worse, the Thai media have lost their way in a labyrinth of deceptive schemes—whether it is the much vaulted reconciliation bill, the pledging of rice prices or the women’s development fund.

The latest plan is the new operation center in Bangkok to manage the southern provinces to provide yet another illusion that something is being done to quell the crisis there. Lastly, there were reported negotiations with the separatists. Normally, state players enter into such games when they have an upper hand against the non-state actors. It does not make sense.

Well, whether the Thais deserve a leader such as this is not the question for now. Recent polls, both professionally and unprofessionally conducted, have yielded one common result—Yingluck is not such a bad leader and should stay on. Any criticism against her now would be unfair and considered an insidious conspiracy after all the nice things she has said.

That alone was her prime virtue during the past year because the Thais have enough on their plate to keep up with the high cost of living, let alone trying to decipher what the prime minister says. In fact, the absence of her views is a blessing in disguise as her predecessor suffered tremendously from insightful and intelligent comments.

While his views were coherent and realistic, unfortunately they were not music to the public’s ears. The Thais want to feel good with some money in their hands to spend. In rural areas, 10 or 20 baht can make quite a difference.

Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party has made sure that funds are quickly dispersed to them, even with a lot of pilfering along the way. Corruption is epidemic in this government but Thais in general do not care as long as they have something in their hands, albeit briefly.

In the previous government, the disposal of public funds was slow due to stringent rules which caused public resentment. The opposite is now true; this government spends a great deal due to the ability to place funds hidden in various accounts—like crooked corporate auditors. So the government successfully fulfilled some of the 16 policy pledges announced this time last year.

Some of them are sloppy—everything is a work in progress. Again, Thais do not mind as long as they are implemented. Long-term negative consequences do not come to mind. Live and let live another day. Therefore, the government spins day-to-day policies and enslaves the public mind with the façade that they are enjoying a good life. The future has yet to come. There is no payback with the current government—the only way is forward—because the Pheu Thai Party will always win the next election.

Even in foreign policy, the government is changing all the rules. Yingluck is very proud that she has transformed all Thai ambassadors, who normally represent the Royal Court, into salespersons for the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) scheme overseas. No wonder some important countries are now staffed 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 Thai political shenanigans in plain English. A lot more is happening regarding Thailand in Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos these days.

For the past 65 years after the end of World War II, Thailand was considered the region’s prima donna that nobody could match—being the only independent country without colonization. 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 capital without discrimination. Furthermore, they have better stories to tell and their people are eager and full of energy.

The Yingluck 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 will be interesting to watch. She will attempt to describe how Thailand can be a facilitator for rich and poor countries, the north and south as well as the big powers and small powers, and so on.

Thailand is traditionally very adroit at dangling from one side to another liked a willow bending in a gentle or gutsy breeze. But under Yingluck’s helm, Thailand is no longer aspired to lead—it just wants to plug in with the rest of the world and that is good enough.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.


5 Responses to Yingluck’s Thailand Losing Direction

  1. Yingluck government has been spending an enormouly huge amount of budget allocations , giving out to every sector, every corner to win the hearts of every one as her populist strategy. On the other hand, it is a hearsay that 55 year early retirement plan has been extended to 65 year old retirement plan. Is it true that recent government has spent all pensioners’ money, the budget allocation , and no money is left to give a large sum of retirement money to those turning into 55 for early retirement. For those who are 55 now, when they turn into 65 in next 10 years, Yingluck government will not stand for another decade, so Democrat has to come back to clean the all messy house and has to encounter ” No budget in government” ethical dillema. So Abhisit as Mr. Law will be as stingy as ever.

  2. Don’t worry, Big Brother Thaksin will be back soon, I predict!
    Anyway, maybe Yingluck is clever enough (like a good Thai) to know that sometimes it is better to be “non-committal” (so not taking strong positions) until things settle down. The main foreign policy issue in the region right now is the way China is breaking up ASEAN (Cambodia and Laos are already controlled by China).
    Economically, the whole world is slowing down a bit anyway, but that might be a good thing for the environment for example. Besides, during boom times only the rich (1%) get really rich. The 99% can only get some trickle effects and that is true in most countries, not just in Thailand.

  3. The author of this article writes for a newspaper whose editorial is opposed to democracy and supports the self-proclaimed anti-democratic PAD yellow shirt movement.

    This should be self-evident from this article as the writer doesn’t even mention that Yingluck and Pheu Thai’s mandate is massive – one of the largest for a single party in any democracy on earth.

    That doesn’t mean that the govt shouldn’t be held to account but given events since the 2006 coup, that Thailand has maintained a stable, democratically elected govt for over a year is an achievement.

    I also hope the Irrawaddy now give a Pheu Thai and Red Shirt sympathetic voice as much space as this article. If not, then the accusation that their coverage is unbalanced can be levelled at them.

  4. The blog Political Prisoners Thailand have written a brilliant response to this awful article by Kavi. http://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/kavi-goes-off-loves-abhisit-hates-yingluck-hates-electors/

    “Kavi Chongkittavorn appears in The Irrawaddy, attacking Yingluck Shinawatra’s first year as prime minister. Apparently the article was originally in The Nation, as an op-ed, but as PPT avoids those pages as if poison, we didn’t see his diatribe until The Irrawaddy reproduced it. In reading the post that follows, readers might recall that PPT has been critical of Yingluck Shinawatra and her administration (for example, here, here and here). However, we feel that Kavi’s account is simply a piece of undisguised political doggerel.

    He begins his account with a bit of poor journalism by making his very first point a bit of macho nonsense: “all Thais agree without any hesitation that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is easy on the eye—her photogenic face closely linked with an above average approval rating.” IN other words, where a decent political point was made the Abhisit Vejjajiva was only good at talking, Kavi descends to claim that Yingluck is a good looker but displays “no leadership whatsoever.”

    What’s worse for Kavi is that “the media, both electronic and print,” has simply bought this as that media is “so gullible in championing her appearance and body language…”. This is nonsense and suggests that Kavi doesn’t even read his own newspaper.

    He gets agitated that Yingluck has an “image” that is not about shooting people and having political opponents locked up but of “engaging with villagers and those suffering from last year’s floods with her index finger pointed at the needy as if it was a panacea.” Heaven forbid, she is also praised as a mother and as “Thailand’s first female prime minister.”

    What’s wrong with all of that? Well, it seems Kavi is upset because the Puea Thai Party is more media savvy than Abhisit and the Democrat Party, who were good lads but “detached and stingy…”. He might have added that Abhisit and his lot were pretty good at gaining negative publicity by their repressive actions. Kavi might not have noticed, but the verdict of voters was a resounding rejection of his preferred lot.

    For Kavi, the problem is that Yingluck is “a convener rather than a leader.” He seems to prefer a strong leader, perhaps backed by the military’s guns or who is greeted with derision in much of the country. Be that as it may, Kavi can’t but avoid this: “Recent polls, both professionally and unprofessionally conducted, have yielded one common result—Yingluck is not such a bad leader and should stay on.” Oops, the damned voters expressing an opinion again!

    That seems to have really ticked Kavi off, for he responds with this: “In fact, the absence of her views is a blessing in disguise as her predecessor suffered tremendously from insightful and intelligent comments.” It has to be said that Kavi has long displayed an uncritical love and admiration for Abhisit. Back in 2009, PPT commented on another piece of Kavi’s Abhisit posterior polishing: “It seems, however, that he is serious, demonstrating his inability to distinguish between his admiration for Abhisit and reality.” That hasn’t changed.

    Whereas Abhisit was “coherent and realistic,” the buffaloes in the countryside just want money: “The Thais want to feel good with some money in their hands to spend. In rural areas, 10 or 20 baht can make quite a difference.” It’s the old People’s Alliance for Democracy line that votes and support are all about (Thaksin’s) money and corruption. Kavi prefers it when Abhisit’s support was all about the barracks and the palace, where there are nice, clean, coherent and sensible people rather than a rabble.

    “Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party has made sure that funds are quickly dispersed to them, even with a lot of pilfering along the way. Corruption is epidemic in this government but Thais in general do not care as long as they have something in their hands, albeit briefly.” Of course, Abhisit was slow “due to stringent rules which caused public resentment.” It is all about corruption now and the Democrat Party government didn’t do anything wrong (see here, here, here and here, just as a few examples of Kavi’s disingenuousness).

    On corruption, while the measures are contested, Transparency International shows virtually no change in Thailand in its perception’s index during Abhisit’s time as premier. Interestingly, the index for Thailand declined after Thaksin Shinawatra was thrown out by Abhisit’s friends in the military.

    Kavi’s not interested in truth, just pompous claims that deride the people who vote: “Long-term negative consequences do not come to mind. Live and let live another day. Therefore, the government spins day-to-day policies and enslaves the public mind with the façade that they are enjoying a good life. The future has yet to come. There is no payback with the current government—the only way is forward—because the Pheu Thai Party will always win the next election.” Damn voters, again!

    And it gets worse!: “Even in foreign policy, the government is changing all the rules. Yingluck is very proud that she has transformed all Thai ambassadors, who normally represent the Royal Court, into salespersons for the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) scheme overseas.” Forgive our stupidity, but PPT had thought the ambassadors were diplomats who represented a nation rather than the personalized interests of a monarchy that is meant to be constitutional. Kavi appears to prefer it that taxpayers money is wasted on the foibles of royals (with here, here, here, here, here, and so on).

    You get the picture. In the end, PPT prefers a quieter, calmer premier who heads a regime that isn’t killing and imprisoning opponents. If we were to engage in the doggerel Kavi has served up, we’d be saying that not only does Kavi look like Larry of the Three Stooges, and not to put the Stooges down, Kavi sounds like a stooge, for Abhisit and his lot. It is at that level.

  5. I was in Bangkok recently and it was clear from folks that over 50% of the kids are addicted to drugs and it’s freely sold on streets and in clubs. Sad to say but I now feel Bangkok is one of the most corrupted city. People with money can get away with anything. There is absolutely no fear of the government/police. And here they are fighting about power between red shirt/yellow shirt when basics are not met. My question is to the goverment, what are you trying to rule? Over a country that has lost it’s self respect in every possible way? Sorry to be so harsh..but that’s really the truth. Thai people in general are very nice..but the rich/uneducated got way too greedy and governement supports them.

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