- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2001

BANGKOK The United States' cash-hungry Southeast Asian ally enters the 21st century with an election tomorrow to decide if a billionaire accused of corruption should replace Thailand's prime minister.
This so-called "experiment with democracy" is being scrutinized by a coup-conscious military and cynical human rights activists both mindful that money buys votes.
No matter who wins, Thailand's economy is expected to remain vulnerable, threatening to widen the dangerous gap between urban rich and rural poor.
The winner will rule over a nation that boasts valuable international lures, such as tourism, delicious food and an exquisite culture.
But the next prime minister also will administer a society grappling with deadly racketeers, AIDS and environmental degradation.
Thaksin Shinawatra was the odds-on favorite until the National Counter Corruption Commission declared he cheated by concealing much of his vast fortune.
Mr. Thaksin attracted investigation after he clumsily signed over huge chucks of his estate to his maid, driver and bodyguard. He then lamely claimed he was not so rich.
Mr. Thaksin controls a powerful telecommunications corporation and is described as the country's wealthiest person.
Mr. Thaksin, who leads the nationalistic Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, told TV viewers in November, "I am closer to Mr. Bush than Mr. Gore.
"Governor Bush's father, ex-president George Bush, is chairman of an investment company where I am a director."
On Dec. 28, however, staff of Independent Television said Mr. Thaksin's investment in the network interfered with its election news coverage.
"There has been political intervention in our coverage, but from now on we will defy such orders," said Jira Hongsamrerng, the TV station's chief editor.
Mr. Thaksin's success in making big bucks is inspiring many would-be voters to claim he is the obvious choice to turn Thailand into a profit center.
The tycoon shrugged off predictions that he could be yanked out of office early in his five-year term if a Constitutional Court upholds the commission's corruption accusations.
The current prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, meanwhile, is presenting himself as a polite, coy gentleman with a "clean" reputation who is tirelessly pushing Thailand out of economic quicksand.
Critics point to Mr. Chuan's larger Democrat Party and its 3-year-old coalition government as the reason Thailand has not recovered after its yuppie-infested "bubble economy" collapsed at the start of Asia's financial meltdown a few years ago.
Diplomats, investors, workers and others also complain Mr. Chuan has not done enough to bandage the hemorrhaging banking sector, curb corruption and distribute essential goods and services, despite being prodded by the International Monetary Fund.
Parents and students, meanwhile, want schools to modernize because the average Thai limps along with only a seventh-grade education.
Mr. Thaksin insists the battered economy needs bold reforms.
But Mr. Chuan claims the economy has turned a corner and now requires his cautious, technocratic fine-tuning.
Whoever wins tomorrow's vote will need to, yet again, shove together a potentially squabbling coalition of smaller parties.
While Mr. Thaksin, Mr. Chuan and other politicians all vow to use capitalism and global trade to fix the economy, their personalities appear more important than their party platforms.
Corruption, meanwhile, has emerged as the most immediate issue.
The corruption crisis includes crime syndicates that shred international copyrights and turn out endless counterfeit products such as pristine Rolexes, fashionable Prada bags, worthless medicine and distressed Buddhist antiques.
Copied compact disks are so passe that dealers now sell CDs packed with more than 100 songs in MP3 format, cramming up to 16 albums by Jimi Hendrix, or anyone else, onto one computer-ready disk for less than four U.S. dollars.
Corrupt officials also help Thais buy millions of methedrine pills each year, fueling a Burma-based smuggling operation that has become Thailand's No. 1 national security problem.
Elections are also notoriously corrupt, with candidates handing out cash and gifts to blatantly "buy votes."
In some cases, whoever gives the most money wins.
"Vote buying is ongoing," said human rights lawyer Thongbai Thongpao.
"Payments ranging from [50 to $25] are made through agents," said Mr. Thongbai.
As a result, candidates now are threatened with expulsion from politics if they are caught on the campaign trail lugging their traditional big bags of currency notes, food or other items wrapped in political leaflets.
But corruption is so widespread that the anti-corruption commissioner who led the investigation into Mr. Thaksin's wealth was herself forced to quit on Dec. 28 because she violated the government's conflict-of-interest rules about owning assets.
Others on the nine-member corruption commission were also under investigation.
The anti-corruption squad ultimately may be deemed so corrupt that Mr. Thaksin may win his appeal in the Constitutional Court against its ruling.
"Thaksin Shinawatra is facing a dilemma that perhaps only Al Gore could truly appreciate," said Nation newspaper columnist Thanong Khanthong.
Elsewhere in the country, accusations of corruption before, during and after the polls are expected to slow formation of a new Parliament, while politicians argue over local counting and possible rounds of fresh voting.


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