The Nation/Asia News Network
Saturday, Sep 24, 2011
Thaksin Shinawatra loves to push the limits, but Wednesday's incident was as if he was attempting to demolish the barriers. His Skype contact with Pheu Thai ministers was the most legally defiant act since his youngest sister became prime minister.
Long-distance communications with his people are not new. Thaksin used video links to rabble-rouse the red shirts, to calm down Pheu Thai politicians and to send open or encoded political messages to whoever was working for him. However, that was when Pheu Thai was in the opposition camp. Wednesday's Skype talks were directed to political office holders, to whom he gave advice on the flood crisis and the economy. Has he gone too far this time?
Critics were quick to point to Prime Minister's Office regulations that prohibit political officials from giving support to people with legal problems - like Thaksin. It's not hard to determine whether listening to his Skype advice constituted "support". What's much harder is the question of what can be done about it.
The line has been blurred for some time now. The visa permission by Japan raised a serious question concerning the foreign minister. Thaksin's visit to Cambodia coincided with trips to that country by political VIPs from Thailand. The Bangkok government under Yingluck Shinawatra has all but sent out an international signal that Thaksin is no longer a much-wanted fugitive.
Now, Thaksin teaching Cabinet members how they should fight floods and revive stimulus policies has taken it to a new level.
No matter the size of the legal controversy this may cause, the political impact could be worse. With Pheu Thai in firm control of various key state apparatuses, and seeking to dominate even more, Yingluck won't lose any sleep over legal threats arising from this furore. First of all, to advance a case against the Skype incident, the issue must be raised by ombudsmen with the Cabinet or the House of Representatives. Neither is likely to take the issue anywhere.
The best hope of Thaksin's opponents is for such a case to end up at the National Counter Corruption Commission. That could also be a long shot, considering current political circumstances. The Pheu Thai Party and the Yingluck government have virtually portrayed Thaksin as a political victim, not a legal fugitive. Any legal move against the Skype controversy could refuel the victim-or-fugitive debate and play nicely into the hands of those campaigning to revise Thaksin's status so he can return home without having to suffer punishment.
Legally speaking, it's a matter of "even if it's wrong, so what?" The Pheu Thai camp tried yesterday to defuse a possible future time bomb by insisting that Thaksin was calling to give encouragement and not instruction. So the party's line of defence is clear: Thaksin just logged in to boost Cabinet members' morale and gave a few tips in the process.
However, what Thaksin's brazen move has done to the image and confidence of his own sister may be a different story. Unlike the Cabinet members, there's very thin line between boosting Yingluck's morale and destroying it. Thaksin might want to help her, but end up shattering her self-belief.
"Reading Thaksin's Skype messages ... you have to admit that Yingluck is a far cry from matching her big brother," one analyst said.
Only Thaksin knows why he takes such risks. But the Skype contact followed days of frustration within the ruling party about the performance of its Cabinet members. Party sources claim that many Pheu Thai ministers are moving without focus, and some have adopted an everyone-for-himself attitude. There are allegedly ministers who feel they don't belong. Kittiratt Na-Ranong, for example, has declined to talk at party meetings where, as commerce minister and deputy prime minister, he was supposed to field questions from party MPs.
Rumours have it that all roads are now virtually leading to Thaksin, and things barely progress without him saying that he wants them to happen. As front pages have filled with stories about controversial bureaucratic transfers, Yingluck has been confirmed as having had nothing to do with them. Thaksin, it has been claimed, has swooped down as low as giving "opinions" on reshuffles of middle-ranking officials.
What Thaksin did on Wednesday has reinforced the perception that Yingluck is a prime minister who's barely in charge. But here's probably the most important point of this latest Thaksin controversy: If Yingluck has become discouraged, then pity her. But if she's thankful despite having been exposed once again as a leader who's not in control, it will encourage her brother to move quickly to the next barrier.