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Asia/South Asia
Thailand's tarnished tycoon
Amy Kazmin

          In 2001, Thai voters, still reeling from the 1997 economic crisis, handed power to Thaksin Shinawatra, a successful and self-confident telecommunications tycoon, who pledged to use his business savvy to restore Thailand's wounded pride and get the sputtering economy back into high-gear.
Mr Thaksin, an avid reader of books on management theory and futurology, promised what he called "CEO-style" government -- fast, efficient, flexible and responsive -- to gear up Thailand for global competition and to lift up the long-neglected rural poor. But despite his bold, inspiring vision -- and delivering several years of solid growth -- the prime minister's future in office today is increasingly uncertain.
Just a year after winning an unprecedented landslide re-election - in which his Thai Rak Thai party won three-quarters of parliamentary seats, Mr Thaksin is facing a serious revolt from minority shareholders: infuriated middle-class Bangkok taxpayers who are fed up with a leader who once held them spellbound and have now taken to the streets demanding his resignation.
For all his professed enthusiasm for modern management tools, Mr Thaksin in power has displayed many traits of the traditional Thai-Chinese tao kae, or business owner, ruling his dominion with an iron fist, making most key decisions himself, installing loyal relatives as subordinates and tolerating little dissent. Many in Bangkok have simply had enough.
"He claims to be a CEO running the country like a corporation, but it is an archaic corporation, not a modern corporation," says Somkiat Tangkitvanich, a policy researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute.
"Participation is not allowed and secrecy is normal. He micro-manages everything, makes all the decisions and has centralised power. He has brought in and promoted many of his relatives and classmates to high positions. This is certainly not modern -- it is a kind of nepotism, cronyism."
Chris Baker, author of a book on Mr Thaksin's career, says: "He thinks like the head of a company, but it is a Thai-Chinese family type company, which is very much despotism. You are the head of the family and the head of the business. The responsibility is on you and all the power is with you."
The scion of an affluent, politically influential Thai-Chinese business clan from Chiang Mai in Thailand's north, Mr Thaksin built Shin Corp -- Thailand's largest telecoms firm -- on an ability to secure monopolistic government concessions.
He has the politicians' gift of being charming and engaging "when he wants to be", one associate said, and he visibly revels in the adoration of his supporters, most of whom are the rural poor. But in a Buddhist culture where polite manners, humility and calm temperaments are highly valued among good society, Mr Thaksin has often appeared brash and domineering, frequently using coarse language to attack and insult his critics and political rivals.
"He doesn't like being contradicted and he doesn't like to be disagreed with," said one Thai business executive. Once when a cabinet meeting was broadcast live on television, many Thais were aghast to see the premier lecturing his ministers, who were submissively taking notes. Civil servants complain he actively interfered with the bureaucracy and the army, polarising the institutions.
Mr Thaksin has also sought to control the airwaves as no elected Thai leader has done before. Until recent weeks, most dissenting voices were purged from television and radio, while the premier's pronouncements were slavishly aired.
And despite his public pledges to take a ruthless, uncompromising stand against graft, many Bangkok taxpayers have long been unhappy at his apparent willingness to tolerate pervasive corruption in his administration. He also dismissed allegations of conflict of interest, as his administration repeatedly made decisions that benefited Shin Corp, which he and his wife handed over to their two eldest children before he took office.
Mr Thaksin, who holds a PhD in criminal justice from Texas' Sam Houston State University, has also treated his electoral mandate as something of a blank cheque, expressing open contempt for constitutional checks and balances. After he was acquitted of an asset concealment charge in 2001, he publicly questioned why 15 judges should have authority over a popular elected leader.
Simmering public resentment at the prime minister's often abrasive style, and his failure to live up to his promises of clean government, finally erupted after the Shinawatra family's Bt73bn ($1.9bn) tax-free sale of their 49 per cent stake in Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, accusing Mr Thaksin of helping his family to dodge taxes and sanctioning the sale of strategic assets to the arm of a foreign government.
"It is his personality that has triggered such vituperation," said one foreign stock mrket analyst. "He doesn't tolerate any views but his own. It is 'my way or the highway' with him, and that upsets a lot of people. Why has there been this explosion over the Shin Corp deal? It is pent-up resentment against this high-handedness. If he had been a humble person, I think more of his foibles and faults would have been tolerated."
Confronted with heavy criticism of the Shin Corp deal, Mr Thaksin dissolved parliament and called for an April 2 snap election, betting that with his massive rural support he could easily win a referendum on his leadership, silencing his critics in Bangkok. But with opposition parties boycotting the polls, Mr Thaksin faces the spectre of an inconclusive election that could lead to a constitutional crisis.
And as he contemplates his options amid growing calls for his resignation, more than his political survival is at stake. Mr Thaksin's rivals have suggested that they would like to freeze the Shinawatra family's assets, while Shin Corp and its past dealings are investigated, a major threat to his family that gives the prime minister a strong incentive to hang on in power. Even without this looming risk, Mr Thaksin himself would be loath to give in to his enemies by stepping down.
Still, some Thais suggest that Mr Thaksin might be able to take a temporary break from politics, then return later. That might give him a chance to look back at his own recommended reading list, which notably includes the book, Why CEOs Fail.
"He told his cabinet that the main reason CEOs failed is that they don't listen to people," recalls Mr Somkiat. "He doesn't seem to realise that he hasn't conformed to what he has been preaching."
Under syndication arrangement with FE


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