International Papers

Thais Love Thais Love Thais

Saturday’s election in Thailand is already answering the question of how effective the constitutional reforms the country passed in 1997 to clean up its corrupt electoral system were. The general election, the first under the new rules, ousted the ruling Democrat Party and gave telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra the premiership, and his 2-year-old populist party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), an absolute parliamentary majority. An anti-corruption commission recently found Thaksin guilty of a financial impropriety during his stint as deputy prime minister in an earlier administration. If the commission upholds its earlier finding, Thaksin would be banned from politics for five years.

The Financial Times said the prospect of Thaksin’s disqualification so soon after winning such a strong popular mandate “has prompted some nervous politicians in recent weeks to warn of a potential constitutional crisis, a military coup or popular backlash against reforms.” Nevertheless, a judge assured the FT that the commission “would not be swayed by popular sentiment.” The International Herald Tribune revealed Saturday that although Thaksin styles himself a “self made entrepreneur who succeeded on pure merit … many of his most lucrative business ventures are monopolistic concessions that can be linked to deals made when family or friends held high government office.” The concessions that are the source of most of his vast wealth—pager, cell phone, and data-transfer rights—were granted when his uncle served as a deputy minister of communications, for example.

The syndrome syndrome: What do you call a series of apparently unconnected symptoms? A syndrome, of course. Britain’s Observer, Spain’s El País, Belgium’s Le Soir, Italy’s Il Messaggero, and Portugal’s Diario de Noticias were among many European papers using the term “Balkans Syndrome” in their coverage of the controversy over whether the depleted uranium munitions used by NATO in the Balkans campaign may be linked to the cancer deaths of several NATO soldiers. In most cases there was no clear definition beyond a general “like Gulf War Syndrome, except you caught it in the Balkans.” Another recently coined malady is “economy-class syndrome,” blamed for the deaths of at least two passengers on long-haul flights. The Times of London reported that a 68-year-old British man died when a “deep vein thrombosis,” apparently linked to cramped conditions on aircraft, reached his lungs after a flight from London to Melbourne. In October, a Welsh woman died in similar circumstances after a 20-hour flight from Australia to Britain. Such is the mania to find new cases that both the Times and the Sunday Telegraph speculated that a woman who fell ill on a flight from San Francisco to London and later died also suffered from “economy-class syndrome,” despite a complete lack of evidence (“there was nothing to link her death with the flight”) and the fact that she flew business class. In fact, just about anything can become a syndrome: An op-ed in Saturday’s International Herald Tribune opposing U.S. intervention in Colombia was headlined, “Time for the U.S. to Avoid the Vietnam Syndrome in Colombia.”

The radicalism of youth: Is it too soon to add this to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s rap sheet? The former student radical, who acknowledged last week that 1973 photographs showing him beating a cop were authentic (the photos can be seen here, courtesy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), has now been confronted about his possible involvement in a more serious attack on a policeman. Britain’s Sunday Times reported that Fischer was arrested in May 1976 on suspicion of attempted murder after demonstrators threw a Molotov cocktail into a car, severely burning a police officer, and that some police files on the minister’s activist years have disappeared from their archives. While Fischer is embarrassed by the revelations from his radical youth, in Britain two prominent members of the Labor government are parading their activist histories with pride. Writing in the Guardian, Foreign Office minister Peter Hain, who was a militant anti-apartheid crusader in the 1970s, invoked his past to justify his current campaign to maintain sanctions against Iraq: “They simply want us to abandon Saddam’s victims to their fate. This sounds to me like the kind of appeasement of oppression I fought against in my anti-apartheid days and am fighting against today in my opposition to Saddam Hussein’s brutality.” In the Sunday Times, Britain’s first black government minister, Paul Boateng, who “made his name as a fiery critic of the police and legal adviser to the campaign against black youths being stopped and searched on the streets” in the 1970s, admitted that “political pragmatism” has now altered many of his earlier beliefs. “If people choose to characterise one as a turncoat,” he said, “so be it.”

What’s not good for Trinidad … In the United States, there’s nothing to stop the president from naming defeated office-holders to the Cabinet. Indeed, President-elect George W. Bush has chosen former Sens. John Ashcroft and Spencer Abraham, who both lost their re-election bids last year, to serve in his administration. But, according to the Trinidad Guardian, the president of Trinidad and Tobago believes that appointing people rejected by the voters presents a “danger of creeping dictatorship.” Consequently, he has refused seven of the prime minister’s Cabinet nominations because they were losing candidates in the country’s Dec. 11 election. As of Monday morning, the president and prime minister were still locked in a Trinidadian stand-off.

What’s it all about? A Jan. 4 editorial in Britain’s Independent began, “We have become accustomed in recent years to the idea that spin is all.” Elsewhere on the same page: “In politics, timing is all.”