A Conversation With the Prime Minister

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s approach to the southern conflict has earned him the ire of Thailand’s important neighbors, especially Malaysia, which he has accused of harboring insurgents. Last year, during a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he threatened to walk out if the leaders even discussed the deaths at Tak Bai. To the United States’ dismay, Thaksin has not only defended the military junta in neighboring Burma but has even defended its imprisonment of the Nobel Peace Prize-winner and opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi. (The prime minister’s satellite company, Shinsat, has major business dealings in Burma.)

For Thaksin, all these unpopular stances fall under the rubric of serving as his nation’s CEO. In keeping with this effort, he paid off Thailand’s debts to the International Monetary Fund two years ahead of schedule and refused any form of economic aid. In 2001, as part of his populist political platform, he gave out massive loans through state banks, including 1 million baht (at the time, about $30,000) to each village, and reduced health-care payments to a dollar a visit from the previously unregulated fees each doctor charged. Even so, according to Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, authors of Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand, the average Thai family’s debts have increased fourfold since Thaksin came to power. For the United States, Thaksin’s vacillating response to the crisis in the south and his alienation of his Islamic neighbors presents a difficult problem. “Thaksin is a smart man who certainly runs on at the mouth,” a senior State Department official said recently in his office in Washington. Thaksin is, of course, also “a stellar ally in the war on terror,” the official said, but the situation in the south is another story. “We’ve expressed real concern with the loss of life and callousness with which the security forces have approached this. The government has really exacerbated the violence.”

Tak Bai was especially shocking. “That Buddhist security forces would even consider stacking people like cord wood,” the official added. Several months ago, State’s annual human-rights report censured Thailand because of “a culture of corruption” and mistreatment of detainees. After Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, of course, such State Department protests are unlikely to carry much weight with the Thais.

One evening during his election campaign early this year, Prime Minister Thaksin stopped for crispy fish at Big Brother Red Restaurant in the town of Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand. Just outside the building, blue-green crabs lay on beds of ice. Thaksin was wearing a light-blue linen Burberry shirt and had removed the matching plaid sunglasses he’d been wearing most of the day. His wide intelligent face glistened, and he smiled as he greeted me, revealing tiny teeth. He had recently canceled several public appearances, because, rumor had it, his Buddhist spiritual adviser had told him to stay at home and wear white.

The Thai coastal communities were still reeling from the tsunami—and are even yet—but Thaksin told me that the problem had been addressed. “After the tsunami, people know Thailand much better,” he said. “How attractive it is as a tourist destination. How the Thai people have a great hospitality. And, also, the status of the Thai government is not like before. We don’t need financial assistance. We are changing from being a recipient country to being a donor country.”

Because he is so popular with most Thai voters, there is speculation that Thaksin wants to establish himself as a regional leader. Like “a hen to its chicks,” meaning maternal Thailand would oversee the financial needs of the surrounding “chicks,” one of the prime minister’s senior aides had told me, Thailand is working to become the financial and political center of Southeast Asia. “We will develop Asia not just for Asia but for the whole world,” Thaksin said.

I brought up the subject of civil liberties and press freedom. Every TV channel, for example, is owned and operated by Thaksin’s cronies. In 2003, two foreign journalists with the Far Eastern Economic Review were threatened with deportation, editors have been sacked, and unsympathetic reporters investigated for money laundering. Very recently, the prime minister banned all press coverage of the south that the government deems “unfriendly.”

These are all tactics, Thaksin’s critics say, that he uses to attack free speech. He brushed these concerns aside. “Actually, I am the one who has been attacked and criticized much more than any other prime minister has been, but I always fight back against wrong criticism. I don’t just sit idle and let them say anything that they like,” he said. “They have plenty of freedom,” he added, “freedom until they don’t respect other people’s liberties.”

His flight back to Bangkok—on a commercial airline—was leaving in half an hour, and his entourage began to hustle him toward the door as I asked him about the situation in the south. “It’s purely a domestic affair,” he said and waved his hand before his face as if enveloped in a cloud of gnats. “We will follow his majesty the king’s advice that we have to understand them, try to educate them, help them to develop,” he said. After his re-election in February, Thaksin’s approach to the south continued to vacillate, until this summer, when he declared emergency measures more extreme than martial law.

The decision effectively marked the death of a National Reconciliation Commission, led by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, which has released two reports on the government’s violence at Tak Bai and called for a demobilization of the swelling security forces currently stationed in southern Thailand. In March, during a visit to the south, Thaksin announced that the government planned to give more than $500 million in assistance to villages throughout the country—except for 358 villages in the south, which he designated as “red zones” sympathetic to the rebels.

Standing behind a sandbagged podium, he said, “I don’t want the money going toward supporting insurgents in the red-zone villages. I don’t want the money to be used to buy guns and bombs.” Echoing the language of Jihad in Pattani, he added, “I will never allow anyone to separate even one square inch from this country, even though this land will have to be soaked in blood.”

That same day, a car bomb exploded near a tourist hotel by the Malaysian border, killing five and wounding more than 40. It was Thailand’s first car bomb, and, because of its scale and sophistication—beyond the improvised explosives and other devices the insurgents had been using—it was taken as a sign that Jemaah Islamiya—and al-Qaida—were stepping up their involvement.

Later that month, insurgents ambushed and overturned a train, detonating two bombs and injuring 19 people. In April, in another escalation, the insurgents carried the attacks into the north, planting nine bombs in and around the commercial center of Hat Yai, the international arrivals pavilion of the city’s airport, a hotel, and department store, killing two people and wounding more than 60 others, including two Americans.