Thailand's Stumbling Thaksin Revolution

BANKOK: The arrival of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party into power last year supposedly marked a new day in Thai politics. Now, with crackdowns on foreign and domestic journalists, Prime Minister Thaksin's government seems to be retreating into Thailand's history of authoritarian rule.

Thaksin's electoral victory in January 2001 was something new here. For the first time, a Thai political leader asked the mass of the people to vote for him because he promised to do something for them. He understood (where his rivals did not) that major changes had occurred over the previous decade, and that the Thai people were no longer afraid to demand change.

Once in power, Thaksin named bright, committed reformers to several key ministries and negotiated a ``peace treaty'' with the umbrella protest group the ``Assembly of the Poor,'' after which it lifted its two-year siege of Government House. Most remarkably, he implemented (or tried to implement) his entire electoral platform. He provided farmers with debt relief, dished out village funds, and rolled out cheap health care. He delivered on other promises to NGOs and social leaders, such as a community forestry bill.

The Democrat Party, which headed the previous government, claimed that it offered similar reforms and cannot understand why the voters rejected them. The answer is simple. The Democrats asked people to sit quietly and trust the bureaucrats and politicians to look after their interests. Demands and protests - the Democrats huffed - will get you nowhere. That old bureaucratic paternalism, Thaksin knew, was ripe for overthrow.