Copyright 2012 South China Morning Post Ltd.
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South China Morning Post, January 15, 2012
Reviewed by Nick Walker
Conversations with Thaksin by Tom Plate (Marshall Cavendish):
Former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, loved and loathed across his homeland, makes for a fascinating target of former Los Angeles Times columnist Tom Plate’s professional – and always gracious, although sometimes fawning – curiosity. Unsurprisingly, Conversations With Thaksin: From Exile to Deliverance – Thailand’s Populist Tycoon Tells His Story is unavailable in the kingdom, though not yet subject to an official ban.
Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006, terminating his populist-style leadership of five years. Before his political career, he was an entrepreneur. He made his first billion in telecommunications, before he founded the Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) party in 1998. After his election victory in 2001, he became Thailand’s first prime minister to serve a full term, and swiftly introduced popular and far-reaching policies. But the perception of him as a shrewd, corrupt businessman lingered, and then grew – fuelled by a few high-profile scandals – during his second term. Duly, the tanks rolled back in to central Bangkok to show Thaksin who really was boss in a country that had endured more than 20 military coups in its modern history. Plate’s overview of the man is based on extensive interviews that took place between them at the former leader’s residence-in-exile in Dubai. It’s an accessible read on a complicated individual, and Plate ensures that enough background information is provided for those with little exposure to Thailand’s enigmatic ways of governance.
Plate – a long-time regional political commentator – is adept at eliciting candid answers from the famously weaselly Thaksin. There is also considerable focus on Thaksin’s past. By and large, it’s a story of outrageous overachievement, and it gives clues as to how Thaksin overreached as a doomed leader.For a self-made billionaire and ruthless politician, Thaksin sounds mightily virtuous when speaking to Plate. “I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about my country and the people,” he says with all the humility of a Buddhist monk. However, Thaksin’s assertions and denials here are easy to decode.Plate surmises that: “Thaksin was far from perfect; he made some big mistakes, but everyone makes mistakes. But he did some things, and he expanded the parameters of democracy.” The author doesn’t stick his neck out far with this.
In a quirky, almost Shakespearian, twist to the Thaksin story, today his photogenic younger sister is the incumbent Thai prime minister. Plate managed to speak to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra about her exiled sibling, shortly before she took office after winning the 2011 general elections. “My brother? He’s a genius. He has so much creativity, but sometimes he thinks and moves too fast. Sometimes he acts and talks heavily. Now he knows that. Over the last five years more and more Thais recall good things he did when he was prime minister. So Thailand has been missing him. They want him to come back, they feel he belongs to the Thai people.”
Sounds like the beginnings of another Southeast Asian political dynasty. And if Thaksin is the founding patriarch, then he might, after all, just qualify – in the fullness of time – for the “Giant of Asia” tag that Plate and publisher Marshall Cavendish have gifted him.