4 Mar 2006

Anti-Thaksin Anger Vented on Singapore

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK , Mar 3 (IPS) - Singaporeans living in Thailand or visiting as tourists may have reason to feel nervous at the manner in which the affluent city-state is portrayed in the increasingly bitter political debate that has engulfed Bangkok.

Three anti-government demonstrations in February, which attracted thousands of largely middle-class Thais, offered glimpses of this hostile sentiment towards South-east Asia's richest country.

''Welcome to Thailand: The Second Branch of Singapore,'' read one of the lesser provocative banners held up by the demonstrators at one public rally. During these rallies, all a speaker has to do is castigate Singapore as a nation trying to buy its way into Thailand and the crowds roar in agreement.

Singapore as the scapegoat has its antecedents in a deal, made public late January, between Shin Corp., a telecommunications conglomerate founded by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Temasek, the investment arm of the Singapore government.

Shin Corp. was sold to Temasek by the Shinawatra family, which ran the company after Thaksin shifted from being billionaire tycoon to running the government, in a deal which fetched 1.88 billion US dollars. No taxes were paid.

Almost immediately, a bout of Singapore-bashing began to manifest itself in sections of the Thai-language media. ''Our country has become a colony of Singapore,'' wrote a columnist in the Jan. 25 edition of 'Kom Chad Luk,' one of Thailand's leading local language dailies.

There even was a racial slant to the editorial. ''We should be aware of the danger from the black-haired and small-eyed foreignersà ''We won't have anything left over the next few years because those black-haired and small-eyed foreigners came to be involved in every single policy in Thailand.''

The warning that rising hostility against Thaksin could get transferred to Singapore manifested in February during protests by a group of activists in front of the Singapore embassy here, calling on Temasek to cancel the deal.

Thailand's English-language newspapers have drawn attention to ''xenophobia'' and the ''anti-foreigner'' sentiment in articles reflecting the mood of a city angry at the Shinawatra family for an act of betrayal. Shin Corp., say the critics, owned key sectors of the country's economy and controlled an industry with sensitive security issues that should continue to remain in Thai hands.

This week, the leader of Thailand's opposition Democrat Party, Abhist Vejjajiva, told journalists at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand that there was reason for worry. He added, though, that ''most Thais do not want us, as a nation, to slip into that kind of nationalism.''

''If Temasek cooperates (in making known the conditions of the Shin Corp. sale), I don't see why there would be a reason for resentment to be directed at Singaporeans,'' he said.

The Democrat Party's decision to boycott a snap parliamentary election in early April, called by Thaksin as a way to resolve the current crisis, is expected to push up the political temperature. Two smaller opposition parties have also thrown their weight behind the Democrats.

The Shin Corp. deal is only one of the many issues that have angered the government's critics. The Thaksin administration is also being charged with corruption and financial irregularities, intimidating the media and undermining independent institutions set up to check the power of the government.

Singapore is currently Thailand's second largest investor after Japan. In 2004, its investments were estimated at 600 million dollars. The portfolio includes banks, blue-chip property development and shares in the hospital and hotel sectors. The largest stockbroker in Thailand's Securities and Exchange Commission is a Singaporean entity, Kim Eng Securities.

But foreigner- bashing is not new here. In the wake of the 1997 financial crisis, there was an eruption of anti-foreigner sentiments by the Thai middle class that lasted up to 1999. Foreigners -- largely Westerners -- were faulted for creating the conditions that led to the Thai economy plunging. Helping to propagate the notion of ''the innocent Thai being at the receiving end of the rapacious foreign businessmen'' were the local broadcasting and print media.

In the early 1970s, the target of ultra-nationalism was the Japanese. In the vanguard were university students enraged at Thailand's trade deficit with Japan and the latter's dominance of the local economy. The students called for a boycott of Japanese goods, a Japanese-owned gym was attacked and, most dramatically, hundreds of students surrounded the hotel where the then Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka was staying and chanted anti-Japanese slogans.

Analysts of Thai political culture are not surprised by these outbursts from a people who, in the course of their normal lives, appear gentle, calm and are known for their captivating smiles.

''It stems from the way the sense of 'Thainess' and the Thai identity has been constructed over the past century,'' David Streckfuss, a U.S. academic specialising in Thai political culture, told IPS. ''There is a certain narrowness that has the potential to erupt into xenophobia under particular conditions.''

A similar argument has been made by a Thai academic, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, in a book published late last year, 'A Plastic Nation,' about identity formation. ''Historically, the farang (foreigner) threat was ingrained into the Thai minds during the peak of Western colonisation in Asia. Today, the threat of the farang remains,'' he writes. ''Tam kon farang (worshipping foreigners or foreignness) is deemed as a crime to Thainess.''

Ironically, Thaksin was a leading exponent of such anti-foreigner sentiment when he set up his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) party in 1998 and he road a wave of extreme nationalism to secure an emphatic victory at the January 2001 elections to begin his first term in office.

''Thaksin is now at the receiving end of this Thai nationalist streak after selling Shin Corp.,'' says Streckfuss. ''The Singaporeans are the unfortunate targets of this feeling that foreigners cannot protect and represent the interest of Thais.'' (END/2006)

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