Sunday, December 23, 2007

Juthamas scandal: Is the U.S. trying to manage Thailand’s elections?

21-12-07

The Juthamas scandal: Is the U.S. trying to manage Thailand’s elections?
CJ Hinke, Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT)

A $1.7 million bribery scandal involving former Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Juthamas Siriwan, broke this week with the arrest of two Americans. Juthamas was also Deputy Leader of the Puea Pandin Party, a post which she has now resigned.

Juthamas was a top-level bureaucrat at TAT before becoming its Governor from 2002 to 2006. Tourism is a large component of the Thai economy and TAT has one of the largest non-military budgets in government. Obviously, anyone associated with managing Thailand’s tourist economy wields great power.

I was academically and professionally acquainted with Juthamas in 1990 during my conservation research into Thailand’s 146 hotsprings many of which I personally discovered. I initiated and conceived of this research and visited all 76 provinces at my own expence, being given minimal logistical assistance from TAT in a few regions. At the conclusion of my project, Juthamas accepted my research and published it for TAT without giving me credit, acknowledgement or compensation.

I came to know her again when I attended the several years of Bangkok International Film Festivals as a journalist.

It seems hardly coincidental timing that the Juthamas bribery scandal broke on the eve of the first Thai elections since a military coup d’etat September 19, 2006. Due to Juthamas’ involvement as a top official of one of Thailand’s political parties and during civil society demonstrations to stop the military-appointed Parliament, the net effect of these allegations on Thai society is severe.

This case bears classic signs of public, media and government manipulation through spin. Suddenly no one is interested in political demonstrations or elections anymore because human nature finds scandal far more fascinating than tiresome politics.

Readers familiar with the workings of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency might attribute this timing to dozens of prior U.S. attempts to destabilise countries and their economies and interfere with legitimate elections. Is the U.S. trying to manage Thailand’s elections to the benefit of its military?

Thai politics are labyrinthine, to say the least but the following analysis may prove useful. The players: Palang Prachachon (People Power) Party, pro-Thaksin Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thailand) Party version 2.0; Prachathipat (Democrat) Party, the loyal opposition since 1945; Puea Pandin (Motherland) Party, real mission undetermined.

Puea Pandin split off as a small party which offered to lead a coalition government during the regime of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra at the time his government was besieged by months of public street protests demanding his resignation. The party was only officially registered in October 2007.

Motherland’s sudden rise has led to speculation that it must be getting outside financing from interests wishing to derail Thailand’s two other major political parties. And more than several of Motherland’s leaders are former key members of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party. Puea Pandin has been no friend to the military junta.

If Puea Pandin is tainted with the brush of corruption in the Juthamas scandal, charges frequently aimed at Thaksin, the party will have no credibility to persuade the public to elect its candidates. However, should Puea Pandin elect a percentage of candidates to Parliament, it would become part of a coalition government which could well put Thaksin surrogate, long-time Thai political strongman, PPP leader Samak Sundaravej, prime minister.

Puea Pandin has been third in the Thai polls. If discredited by this week’s Juthamas scandal while it is still fresh in the public mind, this leaves only the pro-Thaksin PPP and the Democrats to contest Sunday’s election.

No bureaucratic effort has been spared in trying to disqualify PPP. It is nearly inconceivable that the military will allow Thaksin’s supporters back to power after more than a year of coup government.

Which leaves us the Democrats, a party founded decades ago and which has emerged almost unscathed by scandal. The Democrats may well be good for Thailand and it is certainly better government to have decisive majority leaders.

If People Power wins the vote and is allowed to take power, Thai society will be again be divided as it was during the Thaksin era. We may well be back to demonstrations in the streets. This would make it impossible to have any kind of effective government and lead us back to military despotism.

Juthamas may well be proven guilty of corruption. However, it is ethically repugnant that either Thailand’s military or any foreign country interfere in our fragile democracy. Democracy means letting the people decide.

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