Charupong's comments upset PM

'Silence is golden". So goes the timeless old adage. Unfortunately though, Charupong Ruangsuwan, the interior minister and de jure Pheu Thai Party leader, appeared to have forgotten this bit of wisdom when he recently talked to The New York Times correspondent in Bangkok, Thomas Fuller, for an article about Thai politics and the role of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the government of his sister, Ms Yingluck.

Whether it was just a slip of the tongue or just pure innocence, Mr Charupong said something he should not have said in the first place, especially to a foreign journalist.

The following is one of Mr Charupong's quotes as it appeared in The New York Times article dated Jan 29 under the headline "In Thailand, Power Comes With Help From Skype":

"We can contact him [Thaksin] at all hours. The world has changed. It's a boundless world. It's not like a hundred years ago when you had to use a telegraph. If we've got any problem we give him a call."

To illustrate his point during the interview, Mr Charupong took out his iPhone and scrolled through a list of phone numbers for Thaksin. Mr Fuller wrote that Pheu Thai Party officials said Thaksin had given different numbers to different people, often depending on their seniority.

Mr Charupong's unwitting admission of Thaksin's decision-making role in the government as reported in the NYT has caused embarrassment to the government and the prime minister in particular.

"How could you say that?", the prime minister was heard to say while reprimanding Mr Charupong at Government House last Thursday.

The words used are mild as the prime minister is not the type of person who screams or yells at anybody in public to express her disapproval or disappointment.

But they were strong enough to make Mr Charupong look stressed.

He is unlikely to be fired from the cabinet or as Pheu Thai leader. But the incident should give him a valuable lesson that the next time he meets the press he should better say nothing than talk and end up in trouble.

The NYT article said Ms Yingluck is officially the prime minister (nominated by Thaksin in 2011).

But from his homes in Dubai and London, from the gold mines he owns in Africa and during regular visits to nearby Asian countries, Thaksin has harnessed the internet and mobile technology to create one of the most unusual ways of governing a country, the article said.

The day-to-day governance of the country is carried out by Ms Yingluck who is genial, photogenic and 18 years younger than Thaksin. She cuts the ribbons and makes the speeches. But Thaksin is the one making the big decisions, it said.

In response to reporters' questions about the article, especially the point that she is a nominee of Thaksin, Prime Minister Yingluck said she had answered the same question several times before. She insists she is the only prime minister and that her cabinet makes all the decisions.

As for the article, she said she could not stop the media from writing what it wanted, but appealed to journalists to be fair. She cited the results of several opinion polls which show an increase in her leadership rating.

The prime minister also dismissed the comment that Thaksin Skyped the cabinet during its weekly meeting, saying that no mobile phones are allowed in the cabinet meeting.

Meanwhile, Noppadon Pattama, Thaksin's lawyer, dismissed the NYT report as inaccurate and said the fugitive former prime minister laughed when told of the article. To prove she is a hard-working prime minister and not a nominee of her brother, Ms Yingluck posted pictures on her Facebook and Instagram pages showing her working in her office, with one image also showing five mobile phones on her desk purportedly to prove that she really is very busy and so needs five cellphones with her.

But would any sensible person carry 5-6 smart phones at the same time, no matter how busy he or she is? The person does not need to answer all the phones by themselves but should have assistants to screen calls first.

Together with the images, the prime minister also posted the following messages: "Just have the time to sign documents. Usually the documents are taken home to be signed because [I am] tied down with work and meetings so I rarely have the time to sit at my desk."

But all the denials posted on the online social media, or made verbally by the prime minister and her spokespeople, are not likely to dispel the perception or "misunderstanding" that the prime minister is just Thaksin's nominee or proxy _ unless she shows she really is her own person, or that Thaksin lets her run the government and stops his interference through his phone-ins.

Also, the party should change its slogan, "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts".

That probably is easier said than done, especially for Thaksin himself. Last week while the prime minister and other government figures were busily making denials about the NYT story, the deposed former prime minister phoned in to address the Isan red shirts, urging them to protect the government.

He said the government is acting on his behalf as he is pondering new projects for the prime minister to implement which will help uplift the poor from poverty.

Now you can see who is to blame for the "misunderstanding" about the real power broker in Thailand.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Veera Prateepchaikul
Position: Former Editor