Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Yingluck government: one year of spin

Tuesday, 21 August 2012 13:58 Kavi Chongkittavorn

(Commentary) – It’s easy to judge the one-year-old Yingluck government in Thailand. All you need is to understand news spin and American football's fast-moving defensive-offensive tactics.

First of all, the Thais wholeheartedly would agree without any hesitation that it is nice to look at Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra due to her photogenic face, which is closely linked to her above average approval rating.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

Indeed, she has made very good use of her appearance. Never mind that she does not have anything to say; and more precisely that she has quite a unique style of leadership – no leadership whatsoever.

With her charm, the media, both electronic and print, have been gullible in championing her visuals and body language as effective ways to communicate what's left unsaid.

"Photos speak louder than words" is an apt description, especially in her case.

For the past year, more than any previous Thai prime minister, she had the best visual coverage in all forms of media. She had more photos published of herself engaging with villagers and the suffering public during the floods last year with her index finger pointing at troubled people and areas – as if her hand was a magic wand, a panacea.

Recently, she was praised as a role model for mothers and Thai women, as her love of her son was exemplary and for her life's devotion for the good of nation – not to mention as the country's first female prime minister. That much is clear.

To top it all, during the past year not a day went by without a full-page ad in the mainstream media on how great the government was because of its populist policies.

Media relations firms and ad agencies love the government as billions of baht have been allocated for long-term media campaigns to make the people feel in sync with the style of government under Yingluck, and to make sure she is well-connected to Thais on the street.

The previous government was made to look detached and stingy. Foreign TV channels proposed numerous plans to do publicity for Thailand. The answer was often in the negative. But this government welcomed publicity at any price.

Of late, attempts have been made to create an illusion that the current leader has a mind of her own and is quite independent, especially from her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

This impression has been given priority after the media-spin master Suranant Vejjajiva served as her personal secretary. He has become her most trusted aide in managing what the prime minister will say and do during the day, and at the end of the day, what will be the media impact. He has done a superb job in elevating her profile.

But one thing has not changed: whenever she faces challenges and unrehearsed situations, she remains passive. At the regular Cabinet meeting, she continues to be a convener, not a leader.

To understand the rest of the Yingluck government, one needs to understand American football's playing tactics – defensive and offensive – that are used to gain yardage and score touchdowns. The government has been able to combine all these tactics with its key players: the red-shirt members, academia, businessmen, bureaucrats, police and soldiers as part of the dream team akin to American football players setting traps on sidelines or in end zones. Once the opponents get stuck on one of the formations, the team scores and moves on – shifting and changing whenever possible.

The never-ending formations of defensive-offensive tactics have kept critics and pundits at bay. Worse, the Thai media have lost their way in the labyrinth of deceptive schemes, whether it is the much-vaulted reconciliation bill, the pledging of the rice price or the women's development fund. The latest plan is the new operations centre in Bangkok to manage the southern provinces to give another illusion that something is being done to quell the crisis.

Lastly, there have reportedly been negotiations with the separatists. Normally, the state players would enter into such a game when they have the upper hand against the non-state actor. It does not make sense.

Well, whether the Thais deserve a leader such as this is out of the question for now. Recent polls, both professional and non-professionally, have yielded one common result: she is not such a bad leader and she should stay on.

Any criticism against her now would be unfair and considered an insidious conspiracy: after all, she has always said nice things without rubbing anyone the wrong way. That alone was her prime virtue during the past one year because the Thais have too many problems trying to stay above the high cost of living, let alone trying to decipher what the prime minister says.

In fact, her lack of views has been a blessing in disguise: her predecessor suffered tremendously from making insightful and intelligent comments. While his views were coherent and realistic, unfortunately they were not what the public wanted to hear. The Thais want to feel good with some money to spend in hand.

In the rural areas, Bt10 or Bt20 can make quite a difference. Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party have made sure that funds must be dispersed quickly to them, even with a lot of pilfering along the way. Corruption is endemic in this government, but the Thais in general do not care as long as they have something in their hands, however briefly.

Short of that, anything is not good. In the previous government, the disposal of public funds was slow due to stringent rules, which caused public resentment. The opposite is now true, this government spends a great deal, and shows an ability to hide spending in various accounts – like crooked corporate auditors.

So the government successfully fulfilled some of the 16 policy pledges announced the same week last year. Some of it is sloppy work – everything is a work in progress.

Again, the Thais do not mind as long as they are implemented. Long-term negative consequences are not in their heads. Live and let live another day. Therefore, the government spins day-to-day policies and convinces the public that they have a good life. The future has yet to come. There is no payback time with the current government – only a way forward – because the Pheu Thai Party will always win the next election at any given time.

Even in foreign policy, the government is changing all the rules. Yingluck is very proud that she has transformed all the Thai ambassadors, who normally represent the Royal Court, into salespersons for the OTOP products overseas.

No wonder we are represented in some important countries now by diplomats-cum-supporters of her brother. In fact, some ambassadors are quite happy with this new task. Well, it is less stressful than trying to articulate the Thai political shenanigans and explain it plain English. Also, a lot more is happening around Thailand – in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos these days.

In the 65 years since the end of WWII, Thailand was considered the region's prima donna that nobody could match, being the only independent country without colonization and its baggage. Unfortunately, the Thais have taken things for granted. Now the good days are over, all countries around Thailand have access to the same human resources and capital.

They have made quick jump-starts with clear directions. Furthermore, they have better stories to tell and their people are more eager and full of energy.

The Yingluck government wants the country to reach out to the world while she remains passive in communicating with the global community. Her coming speech at the United Nations at end of next month will be interesting to watch. She will attempt to describe how Thailand intends to be a facilitator between the rich and poor countries, the North and South, as well as the big powers and small powers, etc.

Thailand is traditionally very adroit in swinging from one side to the other liked a willow bending in the wind. Under her helm, Thailand no longer aspires to lead, it just wants to plug in with the rest of the world – that, it is believed, is good enough.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a widely followed commentator on Thailand and Southeast Asian affairs.

Leave a Reply