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Photos by Manit Sriwanichpoom for Asiaweek
Chuan Leekpai:
Days in the Life

August 13
8:15 a.m.
8:40 a.m.
8:50 a.m.
12:15 p.m.
1:35 p.m.
1:50 p.m.
5:00 p.m.

August 15
9:15 a.m.
10:00 a.m.
11:30 a.m.
11:45 a.m.
4:10 p.m.

August 13, 8:15 A.M.
Outside Chuan's humble Bangkok residence, the politically astute prime minister meets ordinary people who come most days to ask for favors - or simply to wish him well

Man in Motion
Up close and political with Thailand's Prime Minister

by Roger Mitton

Forget having a life, Chuan Leekpai told his security detail when he became Thai prime minister last November. Nor should the bodyguards expect the opulent perks afforded by his predecessors. Chuan never was a flashy man - apart, perhaps, from his impeccably tailored suits and well-chosen ties - and in these days of economic hardship, it's mostly work and very little play. Rarely does the PM return to his modest home on Bangkok's humble Soi Morleng without s tacks of paperwork. On the morning we meet, Aug. 13, his aides emerge from the little two-story house with four cases of documents.

This is a crucial day for Chuan. The following afternoon his beleaguered government will unveil a financial package to clean up the banks and (hopefully) get them lending again. As usual the opposition is ba ying for blood, the press is being unkind, and Chuan is struggling to get his own MPs to show up for Parliament - a serious priority given his administration's slim 23-seat majority.

Yet, even at this critical juncture, Chuan the politician makes time for the regular folk who arrive daily at his gate to request favors - or simply to wish him well. Reluctant to hide behind guards, he game ly mingles. After a few minutes of chit-chat, Chuan climbs into a silvery Volkswagen van - preferred transport, in part, because he can change between functions - and heads for work.

Unlike other leaders, Chuan's motorcade is small - no motorcycle outriders - and in Bangkok the van and its VIP passenger get stuck in traffic just like everyone else. After giving a speech at the Health Min istry and chairing a meeting of the Board of Investment, Chuan arrives at his office at noon. It is a large, sparsely furnished room, and here the slim 60-year-old looks even slighter than usual. Typically, his desk is piled high with files. "I arrange my work on a daily and weekly basis," Chuan explains, "so I don't have a backlog from last week." He delegates as much as he can, but as prime minister must keep up to speed with the work of myriad committees. Moreover, he wears three hats, that of PM, defe nse minister and Democrat Party chief. Later he attends Parliament, chastises errant MPs and pulls another late-night cram session at the office.

On Aug. 15 at 7:50 a.m., Chuan arrives at Bangkok's domestic terminal for a trip south, his political heartland. He is greeted by a media scrum. Reporters ask him about the financial package, under which the government took over two banks, five finance companies, and will issue bonds worth $7.2 billion to recapitalize moribund lenders. They also want his thoughts on 700,000 rounds of ammunition found at a military officer's home and implied criticism of him on military radio. Though he doesn't show it, Chuan is annoyed about the latter questions and feels the pertinent issue is the economy. As he enters the VIP lounge he mutters: "If these people don't want democracy, they should tell me." Is he referring to the once coup-prone military or the media? Chuan sits off to one side with Gen. Naruenart Kampanartsanyakorn, secretary of the defense ministry, with whom he conducts an animated and forceful dialogue. Chuan has been called indecisive but there is no sig n of that here.

As he waits for the flight, Chuan sips water, but doesn't eat, wipes his face with a cloth and consults his cherished notebook. Eventually Thai Airways flight TG 253 takes off. Chuan settles in a window seat in First Class and during the one-hour flight consumes all available newspapers. Again, he eats nothing. Before disembarking, he says hello to other passengers and signs an autograph.

At the city of Surat Thani, Chuan climbs into a jade-green van, driven down by an advance team, and speeds off for a temple some 120 km away. Officially, the PM has flown south to open a religious center and a regional airport. But Chuan's presence in the area is in no small part political. The opposition has threatened to introduce a censure motion in November, and the PM wants to ensure that he can count on Southerners' continued support. Chuan hails from these parts and he knows his constituents. In a midday speech at a public market, he addresses the crisis in plain speak that rural folk can relate to. In terms of recovery, he tells the crowd, only South Korea is doing better than Thailand, so one might say that their country is second to the top. The speech lasts 30 minutes and the weather is oppressively hot and steamy, but the audience sticks around to hear what he has to say. It's a bit of an event in these parts.

Time and again during the day the prime minister reveals what seems to be genuine affection for ordinary Thais. It is hard to believe this is merely an act. People have waited hours to see him and he greets as many as possible. "People love him," says a bodyguard. "When they come to meet him we do not stop them." The only discordant note occurs when someone along the roadside holds up a placard that reads: "It's good that Chuan is coming. At least now we get half a day when we are not choking in dust." The dirt road has been hosed down to keep the dust grounded as the PM's motorcade rolls through at 140 kmh, cops saluting smartly along the way.

Criticism of Chuan is more common up north, though in truth much of it comes from the opposition. Former PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh likes to tell Chuan: "My baht was only 37 to the dollar. Yours is at 41 to 42 ." Another ex-premier, Banharn Silapa-archa, says much of the criticism is unfair. "For the time being I don't see any better government than this one," he says. Given the alternatives, many Thais seem to feel the same way.

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