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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SHAKING UP THAI POLITICS

Chuan Leekpai and his government are not perfect,
but they are changing the system like never before

By Roger Mitton and Julian Gearing / Bangkok


An Interview with Chuan Leekpai

Influence Patronage still reigns in Thailand's provinces

Chuan's Balance Sheet What the PM has done right - and what he's got wrong

MANY PEOPLE FIND IT HARD to believe, but it is happening. Without guns and tanks, a revolution is underway in Thailand. It is ushering in more profound change than any of the 17 military coups that have sullied Thai democracy in the past. For it involves nothing less than a recasting of the nation's political, economic and social template.

The mood of change is evident everywhere, even in the behavior of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who has often been derided as an indecisive man lacking truly authoritative flair. "The leadership style has changed," says Chulalongkorn University dean Suchit Bunbongkarn, who helped draft Thailand's radical new pork-barrel-busting Constitution. "Chuan is more articulate, more decisive, more high-profile internationally and more hands-on on critical issues, especially the economic crisis and anti-corruption measures."

Frankly, he had no choice. It was sink or swim - for him, his government, his country. The ongoing financial maelstrom is the most severe in Thailand's modern history. Under the belt-tightening conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the country has seen the closure of 56 finance companies, massive layoffs, rising inflation and high interest rates.

But the fiscal mayhem also has an upside: it is forcing changes to banking and corporate procedures, and giving a much-needed kick to bureaucratic downsizing and stalled privatization plans. These moves by Chuan and his team are spurring a radical economic and political reformation of Thailand. Despite stern resistance from vested interests, Chuan is determined to prevail. "Our endeavors must ensure that the new system under the new Constitution does not fail again," he says. "Otherwise, people will be disheartened; they will lose all hope for change."

As businessman Adul Khiewboriboon can attest, many nearly lost hope six years ago. In May 1992, Adul's son, like many other young people, ended up a bullet-ridden corpse in a Bangkok hospital after the military launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. "Politicians are not pleased to accept the new Constitution and the parties only accept it because they have no choice," says an understandably cynical Adul. But his tragedy and that of the country marked a turning point in Thai history. Just as July 2 last year, when the baht was floated, was a key date economically, so May 20, 1992, was critical to the current drive toward political reforms.

That day, senior generals who had usurped power only weeks earlier were given their marching orders by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. No Thai who recalls the needless carnage on the streets preceding this seminal event wants a repeat of that debacle. "Since May 1992, there has been strong public pressure for political reform," says Abhisit Vejjajiva, minister in Chuan's office. "More and more people felt we could redesign a better system and get better people." They could and did - but it took time. While the economy continued to boom, many paid only lip service to the political reform process. But after the bubble burst, the link between weak governance and a weak economy became clear. "Many elements then fused together to create a force for cleaner politics," says Chuan.

Result: a new Constitution was instituted last October, while laws governing party politics, election procedures, corruption and vote-buying were passed last month. In between, the ineffectual administration of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was thrown out and replaced with a cleaner, sleeker government under Chuan and his Democrat Party. "People were just fed up with old-style politics; they wanted change," says former PM Banharn Silapa-archa - a highly ironic comment given that he, along with his successor Chavalit, epitomizes old-style patronage politics. Academic Panithan Wattanayagorn says: "It would have been better to have done this political reform a few years ago, but better late than never."

The new setup remains to be tested in a general election. It is expected early next year - though there are mounting calls to bring it forward. Chuan insists the nation cannot now afford to be distracted from the economic crisis. But the strain on Thailand's social fabric may force his hand. The IMF-induced monetary policies are causing real hardship, pitting rich against poor, city dwellers against rural folk. Says Panithan: "We had political reform, then an economic crisis, and now a social crisis is unfolding. Perhaps soon we will have a leadership crisis if Chuan comes under more attack. No society can sustain that."

Recently Chuan and his team have faced sudden and brutal criticism from the media, opposition, academia and non-governmental organizations. Bangkok's The Nation newspaper launched the first salvo in a May 15 editorial that began: "Chuan Leekpai is steadily losing his grip on the leadership of this country." Tougher barbs followed: the PM was called gutless, arrogant and head of a government that was "soup without meat." Most attacks focused on his alleged indifference to the poor and lack of communication with the people. Former businessman and diplomat Anand Panyarachun, who served twice as a highly effective caretaker PM, confirms that the charges are not baseless. "Chuan has not been very good at communicating, at doing things which can be conceived as helping the under-privileged," he says. "In politics, perception is reality. Any government that is perceived as self-righteous will be attacked."

Then there is the potential problem of some of Chuan's coalition MPs being forced to resign, in part due to the strictures of the new Constitution. This would leave the PM with a wafer-thin majority in Parliament. Throw in the continuing turbulence from the economic crisis, and the result is - fairly or unfairly - a perception of incipient political instability. This could lead potential foreign investors to withhold their money - something that Thailand can ill afford. With domestic liquidity almost nonexistent, the country desperately needs foreign funds to resuscitate the economy.

That is why many Democrats are urging Chuan to hold early elections to clear the air. They believe they can reap the benefit of the party's estimated 75% approval rating and win big at the polls, thereby securing the long-term stability that will lure investors back. Chuan has so far resisted the call, but the key factor will be whether the hard-hit urban poor take to the streets. While the coming months will be grim, the hope is that Thailand can get through them without the social upheaval seen recently in Indonesia.

Most Thais feel it can. "People wanted change and we've had a very good start," says Withaya Sucharithanarugse, director of the Institute of Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University. "Now it has its own momentum, so we have high hopes." But expect some disappointment. The changes involved are not mere cosmetic touch-ups but radical surgery. The Constitution was essentially thrown out and a new one written. A key goal was to eliminate corruption and vote-buying. "When the reform process started six years ago, we felt the need for greater transparency and accountability," says Anand, who was involved in the drafting exercise. "We wanted to install more checks and balances."

Provisions that have been brought in to do just that include an independent election commission to oversee polls and an ombudsman to keep an eye on government officials. Voting has been made compulsory - to avoid people being paid to cast ballots. In addition, the big three-member constituencies of the past have been split into single-member seats so that voters can more easily assess candidates. Some fear this may actually fuel vote-buying since fewer people will need to be bribed to win a seat. But opposition MP Sudarat Keyuraphan remains positive: "We are trying to eliminate vote-buying and the only way to start is to push politicians closer to the people. A smaller constituency gives more chance for that."

Under the new system, 400 constituency MPs will be returned, and an additional party list of 100 members will be selected according to voter percentage (for example, a party that wins 20% of the vote gets 20 seats). To qualify, parties must win at least 5% of the national vote - thus lessening the chances of small, potentially divisive regional groups that are often personal fiefdoms. Combined with a new rule that requires every party to have 5,000 members and to be represented in every region of the country, the upshot is that most smaller parties will have to join larger ones to survive.

Another new rule seeks to combat the scourge of party-hopping by requiring candidates to be party members for 90 days before elections. Once elected, MPs cannot renounce their party affiliation without resigning their seats. In addition, all MPs must quit Parliament before they can be ministers. This is to prevent conflict of interest and, in the case of constituency MPs, to avoid any temptation to siphon off funds to their areas to ensure re-election. In practice, few expect pork and vote-buying to be eradicated completely. "At the next election money will still have power," says oppositionist Sudarat. She reckons things should improve after two or three elections under the new Constitution have taken place.

Another key goal is to attract quality professionals to politics. All parliamentary candidates must now have a university degree and be over 25 (35 years for ministers). Some label this undemocratic since it will exclude most common folk, especially in rural areas, as fewer than 3% of the population have a university education. Says Withaya: "Having a degree means they will be better educated, but that doesn't guarantee quality. I find it elitist." Still, most Thais feel the new rules, while not perfect, will improve the standard of parliamentarians and lead to healthy turnover, with unqualified old-timers being replaced by young blood.

Ultimately, whether the reforms succeed or not will likely hinge on the degree to which the Thai masses choose to participate in the process. Many say there is already a growing awareness and interest in politics. But it remains very parochially focused - perhaps not surprisingly since most parties lack clear-cut ideology and policy platforms. Many politicians have little to offer voters apart from inducements to secure their victory. "Policy, ideology, is alien to them," says Withaya. "You can talk about democracy of course, but it doesn't mean anything. Shared interests, how close you are to each other, on what basis, that's more important."

So what chance is there for these landmark reforms being sustainable? Some observers are not optimistic. Says Panithan: "If you look at Japan, the portents are not good. There, the reforms have not really been effective; the same figures are still there, money politics seems still entrenched." An opinion piece in The Nation newspaper last month was even more pessimistic: "Our brand of gutter politics is polluted beyond cleansing."

Still, many people are cautiously hopeful, believing that the new Constitution will impose irrevocable changes upon Thailand's political arena. "It cannot be as before," says a diplomat. "There will not be a black-to-white change. It will go through various shades of gray. But it will change - definitely."

Abhisit points out one undeniably positive sign: "Thailand is going through its biggest economic crisis that anyone can remember, yet the people have never asked for extra-constitutional measures. The changes have all been strictly according to the Constitution, and the parliamentary process was allowed to work. That must show the strength and purity of democracy here."

The fact is, the reforms will take time to become effective. But then, no one expects the desired goals of the reformation, namely good governance and a civil society, to be achieved overnight. Notes Anand: "When we talk about good governance, it is not a one-time achievement, it is not a quick-fix solution, it is a process which must be nurtured, sustained. In a way, it is a never-ending process." Thailand under Chuan has taken a decisive step. Nothing will be the same again.


BALANCE SHEET

What Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has and has not accomplished:

HEY, I'VE DONE THAT...

Replaced sense of bumbling ineptitude and venality of previous governments with one of competence, confidence and rectitude. Been courteous, precise and calm when others panicked and made idiotic, counterproductive statements. And, perhaps most importantly, remained dirt poor when all around are so filthy rich.

Appointed ministers, who for the most part - especially in the finance and economic sectors - seem to know their stuff.

Begun to reform the finance sector, shaken up the Bank of Thailand, appointed new governor, and closed 56 mismanaged finance companies. Stabilized the baht - up to a point.

Kept onside with the IMF. Even got that stingy body to relax conditions on Thailand's $17.2-billion bailout, freeing up an extra $1.2 billion in domestic revenue for stimulatory measures.

Pushed ahead with downsizing government, including a bold - some say foolhardy - reduction in the bloated military, especially the number of generals. Canceled an order for eight F-18 fighter jets from the U.S., saving nearly $400 million - but at the same time losing a $74.5-million deposit.

Achieved passage of crucial political and economic reform measures through Parliament.

OOPS, SORRY ABOUT THIS...

Prevented business taking off again by keeping interest rates so high there is no liquidity to allow projects to proceed, exports to get going, and the stock market to show signs of life.

Genuflected to the IMF a bit too much so that their tough edicts have sacrificed economic recovery in the name of baht stability and banking probity.

Caused spiraling unemployment that will likely exceed 3 million people before year's end.

Failed to effectively communicate with the people, often appearing aloof.

Allowed perception to grow that the poor and disadvantaged are being ignored at the expense of the rich and well-heeled.

Didn't stop fractious, egotistic cabinet members back-stabbing each other.


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