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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 05:01 GMT
Thai PM risks losing populist touch

Tim Luard
BBC News Online

One man who may come to rue Asia's outbreak of bird flu more than most is Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's high-profile, populist prime minister.

Since coming to power in a landslide election victory three years ago, the charismatic, multimillionaire telecoms tycoon has become the most prominent leader in the region, widely admired by Thais and other Asians for his dynamic, hands-on style.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
The media magnate turned PM is accused of covering up the truth
So for a man who prides himself on his public relations skills and problem-solving, his belated admission that his government kept quiet about avian flu to avoid causing panic has been extremely damaging.

Analysts said it also highlighted a growing tendency for Mr Thaksin's liking for secrecy and bluster to land him in hot water.

"The way he has tried to present the country as picture-perfect often leads to a cover-up of various problems and makes the government unable to react in a timely and efficient way," said Sunai Phasuk, a human rights activist and adviser to the Thai Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr Thaksin has yet to recover from the political fallout over a series of attacks in the Muslim-majority south earlier in January, according to Dr Sunai.

Several soldiers and policemen died in a series of bomb incidents, arson attacks and a raid on an army base, which together presented a very different image to the one the government has carefully nurtured to help lure millions of tourists to Thailand's beaches.

First the Prime Minister upset the families of the dead soldiers by saying they "deserved to die" because of their negligence.

Then he persistently blamed the attacks on "bandits", refusing to admit that militant separatists might be involved, even after his security adviser said this was the case.

He came in with a clear vision to bring the country forwards. And whenever a problem arises, he's there.
Ajva Taulananda, Chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

Mr Thaksin's subordinates are normally intimidated into letting him have his way, Dr Sunai said.

"He threatens government officials and they don't dare report anything for fear of being reprimanded. By the time the true story emerges, the problem is too big to solve".

No confidence vote

Opposition parties are now angrily comparing Mr Thaksin's attitude to the bird flu to the secrecy and obfuscation of Chinese officials during the initial stages of last year's Sars epidemic.

They want a no-confidence vote in Parliament - a move unlikely to succeed, given Mr Thaksin's government majority of 220.

After a brief flurry of outrage in the press (including an editorial in The Nation saying "the Thaksin government has been caught red-handed in lying to the people") much of the media has succumbed to pressure to support the government's actions to deal with bird flu, critics said.

"Many papers exercise self-censorship to avoid confrontation with (Mr) Thaksin," said one Thai journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Chickens in Thailand wait to be culled by workers
Have Mr Thaksin's chickens come home to roost?

"Since coming to power... he and his inner circle have been largely successful in taming the once vibrant and proud print journalists by using their enormous economic influence and by flagging up patriotism," said the journalist, noting that almost all broadcast media are already owned and controlled either by the government or by the Thaksin family business empire.

There is no doubt Mr Thaksin faces potentially the most serious challenge since he came to power.

The fact that the cover-up involved Thailand's huge chicken industry could undermine the prime minister's popularity in his own rural heartland, says Giles Ungpakorn, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University.

"He failed to come clean from the beginning... on a matter affecting the livelihoods of a lot of small farmers," he said. "This is a very serious issue".

Despite the criticisms, it is not clear how much of a setback the crisis will prove longer term, or if it will affect Mr Thaksin's hopes of returning to power next year as head of a single-party government - the first in Thailand's history.

The prime minister has relied on his continuing popularity to overcome setbacks in the past.

The violent deaths of more than 2,500 people during a crackdown on drugs ordered by Mr Thaksin last year did not affect his public support, neither did an earlier finding by Thailand's Corruption Commission that he had failed to declare all of his wealth.

Poorer voters like Mr Thaksin's offers of cheap medical care and debt relief, his nationalist platform and his contempt for the "Bangkok elite."

APEC leaders pose in Bangkok last year
Regional leaders have come to see Mr Thaksin as a model
Big business like his CEO style of government and his "Taksinomics" policies that have created a new boom in the country where the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s began.

And despite his present difficulties, he is still a hero to the Thai people, according to Ajva Taulananda, Chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

"He came in with a clear vision to bring the country forwards. And whenever a problem arises, he's there. He's not hiding. He comes out to lead the team, together with the private sector," he said.

"We used to have a lot of red tape, but Mr Thaksin has re-engineered the government structure," said Mr Ajva.

Thailand's economic growth has impressed its neighbours. Leaders in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia have all voiced admiration for their Thai counterpart, who has made little secret of his own ambition to succeed the likes of Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad as the region's foremost statesman.

But as Mr Thaksin faces questions from other Asian leaders at Wednesday's emergency bird flu summit, he may find it hard to present his usual beaming image of the proud host who can do no wrong.

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