THAKSIN Shinawatra’s trip to Cambodia last week, though brief, may hold long-term consequences for the fugitive former Thai prime minister’s hopes of a political comeback on his native soil, analysts say.
Though Cambodia called Thaksin’s appointment as government economics adviser an “internal affair”, the deposed premier’s trip was the closest he has come to Thailand since fleeing last year to avoid a jail term for corruption, and was widely seen as a bid to reinject himself into Thai politics and put pressure on the government of current Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also joined the offensive against Abhisit, who gained his seat last year through a vote of parliament rather than a general election, telling reporters last week that Abhisit had “stolen” the premiership and challenging his Thai counterpart to call new elections.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too, offered an implicit but uppercase attack on Abhisit’s legitimacy in justifying its decision not to extradite Thaksin.
“The condemnation of HE Mr Thaksin Shinawatra is logically the consequence of the military coup d’etat in September 2006 ... while he was OVERWHELMINGLY and DEMOCRATICALLY elected by the Thai people,” its statement released last week read.
Now that Thaksin has left, however, political observers are suggesting that his gamble may prove self-defeating, giving Abhisit the opportunity to secure a popular mandate.
“If Thaksin’s not careful, this could be a turn-off among his supporters,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, said last week. “It’s one thing to fight among ourselves, as Thais have done for the past four years, but once you have an outside hand intervening, Thais may unite against that outside force.”
This unity may be the legacy of Thaksin’s trip, according to Bertil Lintner, a political journalist and author based in Thailand, who said the ex-premier’s Cambodia visit “has backfired badly at home in Thailand”.
Lintner cited a survey conducted by Bangkok’s Assumption University ABAC poll earlier this month, as the Thaksin controversy was gathering steam, in which Abhisit scored a 68.6 percent approval rating, compared with his performance of 23.6 percent in September.
Abhisit’s biggest gains, Lintner noted, came in northern and northeastern Thailand, traditional Thaksin strongholds. A more recent ABAC poll found 51.9 percent of respondents approved of Abhisit’s handling of the bilateral row, the Bangkok Post reported Sunday.
Abhisit, who is not required to call elections until the end of his current term in 2011, has shown signs he is paying attention to these numbers. “The likelihood is that there will be early elections once the economy is firmly grounded,” he told The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, without mentioning a specific date.
Andrew Walker, a Southeast Asia expert from the Australian National University, said Thaksin may not have counted on an upswing of nationalist sentiment in Thailand during the diplomatic dispute, adding that “at least some of [Thaksin’s] supporters may be a bit puzzled as to why he seems to be siding with Cambodia.”
Lintner said there are “many Red Shirts who wish [Thaksin] would leave Cambodia as soon as possible”, though he noted that it is too early to say whether the apparent mood swing of the Thai electorate will be permanent.
Thaksin himself maintained over the course of his time in Cambodia that he was here simply to provide economic advice. Asked about the economic future of Thailand during a lecture he delivered last Thursday at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, however, he could not help but mention his country’s fractious domestic politics.
“The future of the Thai economy depends on reconciliation. If there is no reconciliation, trust and confidence will never come back to Thailand,” he said, adding: “They need the proper people to run the government.”