Yingluck’s Thailand Losing Direction

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 20 August 2012

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.