March 5, 2013

The Oracle of Thailand

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK–Imagine for a minute that Hillary Clinton is elected president of the United States in 2016. Imagine that within days of being sworn into office, there are widespread rumors that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is actually running the government. Imagine friends of the First Couple being quoted at dinner parties as saying, “Hillary cuts the ribbons, but Bill calls the shots.” Imagine that one cabinet minister is so brazen with this information that he goes on record as saying, “If we’ve got any problem, we give Bill a call.”

It sounds like a crazy way to lead a country. Well, not to most people here in Thailand, America’s oldest ally in Asia. Remote leadership is currently its preferred form of government. As journalist Thomas Fuller has written, “For the past year and a half, by the party’s own admission, the most important political decisions in this country of 65 million have been made from abroad, by a former prime minister who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to escape corruption charges.”

Here, it’s not a husband and wife story — but rather, brother and sister. Officially, Yingluck Shinawatra — who very publicly charmed President Barack Obama during an official visit here last fall — is the prime minister. But it is her brother, exiled former prime minister and Thai billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who calls the shots via Skype and cell phone from his homes in Dubai and London. Part of the reason the power-sharing works is that the same brilliant advisor is close to both.

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