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Who's really in charge here?

Sep 11. 2011
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By Political Desk
The Nation

Quiet PM seen as taking orders from Thaksin, overshadowed by Chalerm, while reds wait in the wings

A Thai newspaper article has described Thailand as a "Land of Three Prime Ministers", referring to Yingluck Shinawatra, her brother-in-exile Thaksin and Chalerm Yoobamrung. The trio form a unique political bunch - a woman who is never really in control, a man who has long been uncontrollable, and another man who's threatening to get out of control.

The "three prime ministers" jibe is not totally sarcastic. In fact, it captures perfectly the main trouble battering the fledgling government. Yingluck completed her first month as prime minister last week, but to her, August 8 must seem much longer ago than that. She has yet to lose her cool in public, but government and Pheu Thai insiders claimed they would be happier if she did bang the table occasionally and issue a few orders.

Yingluck is no Thaksin, and Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit is no "crisis politician". That is why the government's response to the flood disaster, which is far less severe than the one that hit during the Abhisit government, has been greeted with more criticism than praise. This awkward response to the flooding might also signal a deeper problem: The Yingluck Cabinet may not have the strong characters needed to push through contentious policies and to cope with fierce politics, whether it's out in the open or in the backrooms.

Yingluck has had to rely on Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm when it comes to sensitive issues like an amnesty for Thaksin. If Chalerm is a "strong" character, he is also a walking time bomb. The swift elimination of police chief Wichean Potephosree has turned the National Security Council (NSC) into a potential political volcano and pitted Chalerm against another deputy prime minister. Kowit Wattana, normally a patient man, has reportedly taken the trouble to call Thaksin to complain about the spill-over of the police affair affecting the NSC, which is under his supervision.

The police chief is being removed to make way for someone to whom the premier was once related by marriage - and the NSC chief, caught up in the shuffle, is taking legal action to defend his job. Any prime minister in such a situation would be expected to say something about it. But Yingluck has let Chalerm do all the talking, and he has accepted the authority with glee and wielded it without restraint. He cursed. He swore. He taunted. At one point, Chalerm, speaking in public, wished eternal hell on his enemies in regards to the police chief-NSC saga.

To let Chalerm try to install Priewpan Damapong as new police chief is dangerous. To put him in charge of the plan to bring Thaksin home borders on suicide. Yingluck's comments on the amnesty plan simply echo her brief pre-election statement on the subject: The government is not in a hurry, and if amnesty does materialise, it will benefit everyone, not just someone. Again, Chalerm was handed the microphone - and he's clutched it like a bad karaoke singer who couldn't care less about his dismayed audience.

Chalerm's appalled spectators included many Pheu Thai strategists, who have made their feelings known. When Chalerm was asked to comment on that on Friday, he predictably laughed it off and went on to explain that sincerity is often misinterpreted as aggression or provocation. He never let problems with critics interfere with his main job, though, as last week was spent primarily on arguing why Thaksin was entitled to an amnesty without serving a single day in jail.

The strategists themselves have turned from trouble-shooters to troublemakers. The senior ones reportedly gave Yingluck a headache last week by fighting over the chairmanship of what was intended to be a powerful advisory panel. The formation of the think tank was intended to help the inexperienced Yingluck, but Somchai Wongsawat, Noppadol Pattama and Chaturon Chaisaeng all wanted to head the panel, and the plan is said to have been put on the backburner.

Yingluck's first month was dominated by Chalerm, the police chief and Thaksin. The second month may see red-shirt leaders try to grab some of the limelight. Somehow, Jatuporn Promphan, allegedly with the help of fugitive Arisman Pongruangrong, has managed a soccer date with members of Cambodian leader Hun Sen's Cabinet. Such a friendly game was intended to help Yingluck secure the release of two yellow shirt activists, Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipattanapaiboon, and Jatuporn claimed similar matches were being planned with Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Burma.

At the first glance, soccer diplomacy sounds like a great idea. But in an interview with The Nation, Jatuporn revealed something that Yingluck should be worried about: The soccer plan is the red shirts' initiative, carried out with little - if any - consultation with her government. It's getting more and more apparent that the red shirts are unlikely to settle for jobs as ministerial secretaries or assistants, and the current assertion of clout may be just the beginning. The red shirts want payback, and obviously it's not just the military and the Democrats who "owe" them.

Controversial election promises are yet to be fulfilled. The labour movement has warned against "selective" or superficial implementation of the Bt300 daily minimum wage. The Civil Service Commission wants a salary structure overhaul instead of merely giving new graduates a Bt15,000 starting salary. In a sign of frustration, Yingluck has reportedly questioned an idea put forward by the leader of her economic team that she should go on a road-show to sell Thai rice in order to supplement the controversial rice-pledging programme.

"It's rice we are talking about here, not stocks," she was quoted as saying in response to Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Kittiratt Na Ranong's idea.

Most, if not all, of this trouble can be traced back to the uncontrollable man in Dubai, who assigned to Yingluck advisers that she has rarely used. Although she is surrounded by big names like General Panlop Pinmanee, Olarn Chaipravat, Suchon Chaleekrua, General Chaisit Shinawatra and Suchon Charmpoonod, it is believed that they were not picked by the prime minister herself. Instead, they were given these posts as a political reward.

Yingluck still seems able to stand the heat, although she's standing right in the middle of the kitchen. Chalerm may be helping draw the fire away from her for now, but he's a mad cook. Thaksin is outside, so the big chef is not feeling the high temperature. Certainly, efforts are being made to keep Thailand's first female prime minister going, but Yingluck could be forgiven if she's feeling strangely isolated.

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