Thaksin undermining premier's role

Thaksin undermining premier's role

The release of convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from detention will present a dilemma for the Pheu Thai-led government. Sooner rather than later, Thaksin, who is now on parole, will outshine Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, and that does not bode well for the latter and the Pheu Thai Party.

The private visit by Cambodian strongman Hun Sen to Thaksin at his Chan Song La residence on Wednesday -- just three days after his release from hospital -- has drawn huge public attention as it gives a clear picture of "who is the boss".

The news of such a high-profile visit dominated all media channels, while Mr Srettha's launch of "Thailand Vision", with grand plans to boost the economy on Thursday went almost unnoticed.

And, mind you, this is just the beginning.

From now on, we can expect "all the roads lead to Chan Song La" phenomenon. But will there be issues of vested interest like in the past? Thaksin is no stranger to controversy, given his style of doing business, with a blurred boundary between his family fortune and public interest.

It's highly likely that Mr Srettha, who has great respect for the head of the Shinawatra clan, will end up just a puppet leader. In his interview with a foreign journalist in September, he said he would seek political advice from Thaksin when the latter was released from prison. In his own words, which sparked an uproar: "Everyone in the government will definitely pay heed to his advice".

It's also known that Mr Srettha has great respect for Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin's youngest daughter and leader of the Pheu Thai Party. As he and Ms Paetongtarn were posing for photos at a recent social event, Mr Srettha teased photographers who tried to get a better posture of the two by saying: "Which prime minister? There are two [himself and Ms Paetongtarn] here". That joke might not be funny now.

Like Yingluck Shinawatra, the convicted fugitive ex-premier and sister of Thaskin, Mr Srettha has no political experience. In running the country, he has to depend much on Deputy Prime Minister Phumtham Wechayachai.

Now that Thaksin has made a comeback, all the spotlight will be on him, while Mr Srettha will be gradually left behind. No one in the government and Pheu Thai will take Mr Srettha seriously, as members and officials know he's not the real leader. It's Thaksin who will have a final say in every public policy.

In fact, it's not just Thaksin who holds the reins. Other members of the Shinawatra clan have asserted their role in one way or another. Yingluck, who remains in self-imposed exile is among them. It's an open secret that Mr Srettha was her PM candidate from the beginning. She also vouched for several of her former cabinet staffers for Mr Srettha's team. And never forget Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra, who may have legally separated from Thaksin but still maintains power in the party. It's not an exaggeration to say that Thailand is now in a weird situation. So to speak, it has become "one country, five PMs" -- Mr Srettha, Thaksin, Ms Paetongtarn, Yingluck and Khunying Potjaman.

But Mr Srettha is at risk of legal trouble for the 10,000-baht digital wallet scheme, Pheu Thai's flagship policy, should he decide to take out a loan for the massive handout. Opponents will roll their sleeves if Mr Sretta and his government push for the implementation of the dubious scheme.

Needless to say, what is going on in the political arena makes people realise the political deal between Pheu Thai and the old powers in their dire attempt to get rid of the Move Forward Party.

But it's undeniable that Thaksin's return comes with a high cost: a decline in Pheu Thai's popularity and a dent in the credibility of the justice system. The privileges he received strongly suggest judicial double standards, not just between Thaksin and general convicts but also between Thaksin and politicians in his camp who are -- and were -- jailed.

Thaksin, whose jail term was reduced from eight to one year, has never set foot in prison since his return from exile last August. But former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom and his deputy Phum Sarapol are still behind bars in a rice-pledging case.

Watana Muangsook served time for irregularities in a housing project for people with lower income. So did Dr Surapong Suebwonglee, former ICT minister, in the Shin Corp contract case, and Yongyuth Wichaidit, former interior minister, in the Alpine land case.

Over the past six months, the public watched Thaksin's drama with dismay. His claim of serious illness, endorsed by Police General Hospital doctors, Corrections Department director-general and Bangkok Remand Prison chief, is not at all convincing.

The fact that Justice Minister Thawee Sodsong poorly handled inquiries on Thursday by an MFP MP on Thaksin's drama and possible malfeasance involving state authorities simply makes it worse.

Now all eyes are on the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is tasked with probing Thaksin's extended hospital stay as petitioned by the Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand.

The NACC's delay in the probe has caused a stir. Like it or not, those having a hand in Thaksin's comeback and all the privileges start to learn of the high stakes the saga has caused.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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