Birds of a feather

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At the height of Thai claims, led by no less than Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, that the Philippines was cheating in the Southeast Asian Games, a Thai official declared that the friendship between the Philippines and Thailand remains and that Thaksin and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are themselves fast friends.

They should be, considering how much in common they have.

Both have managed to hang on as head of state of their respective countries despite the avalanche of scandals, ranging from accusations of corruption, cronyism, human rights violations, and poor governance that in other places would have been enough to dislodge any politician from power, but in the case of Thaksin and Macapagal-Arroyo so far have not.

Both have had “the middle class advantage,” even as both came to power at the same time. The advantage consists of the apparently vast capacity of the middle class, whether in Thailand or the Philippines, to tolerate and even reward the most blatant abuses.

Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) Party came to power in 2001, and were almost immediately engulfed in a series of corruption scandals. Indicted by the Thai National Counter-Corruption Commission earlier on charges of undeclared and hidden wealth amounting to some US$100 million, Thaksin managed to evade conviction when the Thai Constitutional Court acquitted him by a vote of 8 to 7.

The charges alleged that Thaksin, while deputy prime minister in 1997, put millions of shares in several companies in the name of, among others, his driver, security guards and maids—a practice with which Filipino politicians are only too familiar.

Despite that and other succeeding scandals, Thaksin has remained in power since he became prime minister in 2001. Thai Rak Thai in fact won so overwhelmingly in the parliamentary elections of February 2005 that it has almost absolute control of the Thai parliament. That compares favorably with Mrs. Arroyo’s hold on the House of Representatives, as most recently demonstrated by the House’s killing of the impeachment complaint against her.

The critical Thai press attributes Thaksin and his party’s staying power to, among other factors, the willingness of the middle class to tolerate corruption and other wrong-doing rather than risk instability. Besides, Thaksin promised economic recovery from the financial crisis of 1997, and he seemed to be delivering in terms of boosts in foreign investments and the recovery of the Thai currency, the baht. Corruption and other government excesses seemed a small price to pay for these seeming gains.

Mrs. Arroyo has had the same middle class advantage. Although, unlike Thaksin, whose 2000 and 2004 mandates have never been in doubt, it is her mandate in 2001 and 2004 at the root of the political crisis, Mrs. Arroyo came to power on the crest of middle class disgust with the government of Joseph Estrada in 2001. She has managed to remain in power despite accusations of electoral fraud in 2004 primarily through middle class indifference to and tolerance of probable fraud, and the vast corruption that it knows has metastasized in the government during Arroyo’s watch.

Thaksin’s remaining in power despite the corruption and other scandals that have haunted his watch distresses Thai academics and critical media. But there is at least his success in presiding over the Thai economic recovery to account for his popularity. Arroyo does not have the advantage of success that Thaksin has, but proof of failure, and has never been as popular.

Both, however, have the same attitude towards the media. Both regard the media as focused on the negative, and as hindrances to development, and both have lectured the media on what they regard as proper behavior. Like Arroyo, Thaksin is extremely sensitive to criticism. Thai journalists and media watch groups worry over the future of press freedom in Thailand because of Thaksin’s aggressive efforts to silence media through a variety of ways. The same worries haunt media groups in the Philippines over Arroyo’s efforts to erode press freedom and free expression.

While Mrs. Arroyo has so far limited herself to the occasional tirade, and to the usual government practice of corrupting those media practitioners willing to be corrupted, Thaksin has gone farther. Himself a media magnate, he has bought shares in critical media organizations through his political and business cronies in the hope of turning these organizations from critics to enthusiastic supporters, and filed charges of libel and other suits to silence others.

It is in the area of human rights where the two governments most have an uncanny resemblance to each other. Human rights groups have accused the Thaksin government of “severe human rights violations” in Thailand’s southern provinces where a Muslim insurgency is raging. One of the most recent cases was the death in October, 2004 of 86 protesters already in the hands of Thai security forces.

The extra-judicial killings ( or “salvaging” as they’re known in the Philippines ) of 2,500 suspected drug dealers during a much publicized government campaign to wipe out the drug trade has also been criticized by the Thai press, human rights groups, and even the United States government.

Compare this to the killing of journalists in the Philippines to which the government has turned an indifferent eye, the violations of human rights in the conduct of the anti-terror and anti-Muslim campaigns in the Philippine south, and the political assassinations that since 2001 have been escalating in the Philippine countryside, and you have two countries both under governments so focused on remaining in power they’re willing to do anything. Arroyo and Thaksin must be comparing notes.

(Business Mirror)

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