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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

PIVOTS OF DEMOCRAT POWER

Thailand's top party is under the sway of three friends, whose grip on the south has been a key to the recent success of the Democrats

By Roger Mitton / Bangkok


SOME THINGS GET BETTER with age. That may explain the continuing success of Thailand's Democrat Party. Last week, the Democrat-led government showed its mettle again by trouncing a no-confidence motion in parliament. The opposition accused key Democrat ministers of malpractice and corruption. After three days of forceful debate, the motion was defeated by a vote of 251-125.

Founded 53 years ago, the Democrat Party is Thailand's oldest major political group. Three of its five leaders have been prime minister and the other two were deputy PMs. Current party boss Chuan Leekpai, in his second term as premier, looks set to remain the nation's leader until 2000. Southern Thailand has been a key to the Democrats' success. In the 1996 election, the party won 47 of the south's 52 seats. Says Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, head of Bangkok's Institute of Future Studies for Development: "There's no doubt that the Democrats' strength is still in the south."

Anchoring this power lock are party heavyweights like Chuan's predecessor Bhichai Rattakul and Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. But at the center is a trio of friends: Chuan, deputy party leader Banyat Bantadtan and party deputy secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban. Banyat, a former deputy premier, is the backroom power-broker and Chuan's chief domestic-policy adviser. The pair are in the Democrats' 15-member "core group," the policy-making inner sanctum. Suthep, though not yet in the group, runs the powerful Transport and Communications Ministry. That Chuan has made Banyat and Suthep his key re-election planners underscores his trust in them.

The threesome's clout is rooted in their hold on the southern vote bank the Democrats use to build support nationwide. Kriengsak says that the party's grip on the south is "not as strong as before." Suthep insists it is "stronger now than in the past." Notes Pornsak Phongphaew, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University: "The subsidy for rubber planters [in the south] should help the Democrats a lot." Last month, Chuan's government approved a $110-million package to shore up falling rubber prices. Surat Thani, home to both Banyat and Suthep, is a prime rubber-growing area. Says Suthep: "I have palm oil and rubber plantations there. I'm a farmer. And I have a small land-development company."

It was a land issue that landed Suthep in trouble four years ago, forcing his resignation and ultimately bringing down Chuan's first government. Says Suthep: "It was not a problem of corruption, but of party policy - and I was the one who had to run it." But the premier has stuck by his colleague, a key player when Chuan unseated Bhichai for the party leadership in 1991. Suthep, a polished MP, is considered a possible successor to Chuan or to secretary-general Sanan Kachornprasart.

Soft-spoken Chuan, 60, is the linchpin of the trio. It was he who recruited the other two, starting, in 1974, with fellow lawyer Banyat, who like the PM, graduated from Bangkok's Thammasat University. Five years later, Chuan lured Suthep into the Democrat fold. The diminutive premier's powers of persuasion are legendary. Says Kriengsak: "Chuan is a master of oratorical skill. At the same time, he is genuine, down-to-earth and extremely well-versed with what's happening." He also famously shuns money politics, and has no military background or powerful family connections. Chuan rose to the top by sheer perseverance. Says social activist Prawase Wasi: "Chuan is a very honest, clean politician." The prime minister declared assets of only $83,000, the lowest of any minister. Says Chuan: "I have always fought against dirty politics."

Even so, Chuan has been tainted by association, since both his brother, Raruek, and his common-law wife, Pakdiporn Sucharitkul, have been accused of questionable practices. Says Banyat: "There has been a continuous attempt to discredit Chuan. But we don't think it will have any effect because the people seem to understand the truth." The main criticism against the prime minister is that he has not acted firmly enough against colleagues alleged to be corrupt - like Suthep in the no-confidence debate. Says human-rights activist Thongbai Tongbao: "Chuan is a good man, but he is surrounded by people who are very rich." Banyat, not being a minister, did not publicly declare his assets. But, he says, he comes from "a middle-class family" and is "not a rich man." Suthep is affluent, with net assets of $3.1 million (his young children have $2.4 million).

While Suthep fended off the charges in the debate, his image remains tainted. That, he says, is "because people try to blacken me all the time." Not everyone is convinced. Says a Bangkok businessman: "Suthep has skin thicker than a rhinoceros." Even Kriengsak concedes: "With the allegations hanging over his head, he is a vulnerable point of the party." Not for Chuan, though - nor has the premier's popularity suffered as a result. He has received plaudits for guiding the country out of its worst economic morass ever. The PM is widely expected to lead the Democrats to victory in the next election, due by November 2000.

Banyat, 56, is Chuan's chief strategist and point man for the hoped-for re-election. He also keeps an eye on maintaining the prime minister's image. In this regard, Banyat is an old-style but urbane politician, adept at sweetly twisting arms, securing funds, recruiting new blood, dealing with recalcitrant coalition partners - and highlighting opposition weaknesses to exploit. If anything happened to Chuan, it is almost certain that Banyat would take over as party leader, at least in a transition phase. Political insiders say that Banyat is very influential behind the scenes.

The trio effusively praise one another. Gushes Suthep: "The government's best success has come from the premier. People trust and believe him." Echoes Banyat: "Chuan is the most valuable asset of our party." But the three know they have to move out of their southern fiefdom. Says Chulalongkorn University political scientist Suchit Bunbongkarn: "If the Democrats really want to become the majority winner in the next election, they need to get more seats from Bangkok, the central region and the north." If they can do that, the core trio will really have earned their spurs.


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