Is Thaksin’s Takeover at City a Good Thing? An Argument and an Analogy

In the preceding series of posts—going all the way back to the start of the blog—we’ve discussed a fairly extensive set of criticisms of Thaksin’s regime in Thailand (and a few positive things as well).

While the single most damning charge is that of Thaksin’s role in orchestrating and then justifying a recklessly ruthless crackdown on drugs that led to the needless deaths of innocent people, of equal significance are the former prime minister’s authoritarian tendencies, particularly his attitude towards dissidents, critics, and activists. Consequently, we conclude that while the coup d’etat was unjustified and in fact has worsened prospects for stable democracy in Thailand, a restoration of the Thaksin regime is no long-term solution either.

In some ways, this is a tragic conclusion: there is legitimate worry about whether the removal of Thaksin, the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party, and re-writing of the Constitution by the junta will result in the effective disenfranchisement of the nation’s rural majority. Yet it is equally clear that any coalition led by Thaksin himself will be a recipe for instability, if not violence. Too many Thais simply will not accept Thaksin as a legitimate political leader.

Suppose one accepts this general line of analysis. Now ask the following question: is it a good thing that Thaksin is now occupying himself by running Manchester City Football Club?

Consider an analogy. Here in the United States, George W. Bush’s approval rating has fallen to roughly 30%–among the lowest numbers for a sitting President in American history. Many liberal activists, who believe Bush was never legitimately elected in the first place, favor pursuing an impeachment trial against either Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. (Savvy activists say, “Cheney first, then Bush”; no one wants to see Bush forced out of office, only for Cheney, generally regarded as both more sinister and much smarter than Bush, to become President.)

Suppose you are one of those anti-Bush activists, and that you happen to be a lifelong fan of baseball’s Boston Red Sox. One day in the near future, the White House announces that Bush is resigning the presidency of the United States with immediate effect, in order to become the new owner of the Red Sox. Within days, you see the ex-president, still detested by many, at the ballpark wearing a Red Sox hat, shaking hands with fans all around. Similar scenes are taking place in Denver, Colorado, where former Vice-President Cheney is watching his newly bought team, the Colorado Rockies, in action.

If you’re both a Red Sox fan and an anti-Bush activist, does this scenario make you happy?

As a former Boston-area resident, I know a lot of folks who both love the Red Sox and hate George W. Bush. And, I don’t know a single one who wouldn’t be overjoyed by this scenario. “Far better to have Bush running a baseball team than a country,” they would say, adding, “What a relief that man can’t do any more damage to our nation and the world.”

Now consider the attitude of that same person towards the Red Sox. Would that fan love the Red Sox any less, knowing that every game, sitting in the owner’s box, is a man who started a pointless war in Iraq that’s killed thousands of Americans, and many, many more Iraqis? Would the sight of ex-President Bush, wearing his trademark smug smile and his new Red Sox cap, make one’s stomach curdle? Would it be so disgusting that one would swear off the Red Sox and starting rooting for the archrival New York Yankees instead?

I would tend to doubt it, at least for most anti-Bush/pro-Red Sox fans. Rather, I suspect most would continue to love the Red Sox as before, while at the same time maintaining their low regard for George W. Bush’s performance as president. Such a fan would want the Red Sox to make the playoffs and win the World Series, and at the same time want Congress, and/or the next President, to fully investigate, document, and if suitable prosecute the crimes and misdemeanors of the ex-President and his administration.

Such a fan would want Mr. Bush to make sound decisions as chief executive of the Red Sox that gave the team a chance to win, and to run the club in an ethical way that is a credit to the community, and at the same time insist that whatever good he does for the Red Sox does not, on the ethical scale, make up for his misdeeds as President. And, while the fan’s negative attitude towards Bush might soften a bit in view of his good sense in supporting the Red Sox, and while the fan would empathize with his happy reactions when the Red Sox hit a home run, that same fan would go absolutely ballistic with rage if he were to use the Red Sox organization as a vehicle to promote the Republican Party, such as by hosting a Republican fundraiser at Fenway Park.

Conversely, if the day came when Bush was in fact found guilty for some crime committed as President, such a fan wouldn’t fall to pieces, even if he or she thought Bush was doing a good job as Red Sox owner. Rather, such a fan would say that the demands of justice trump baseball; and that the Red Sox were there before Bush came along and will still be there after he’s gone as well.

Now consider a second scenario. This time Bush is already out of office. Fishing around for something to do to occupy the idle hours, he decides to buy the Boston Red Sox. How would the pro-Red Sox/anti-Bush activist feel?

Considerably less pleased than in the first scenario. This time, the anti-Bush Red Sox fan could not take comfort in the fact that Bush’s presence owning the team is, overall, a good thing; Bush was already out of political power before acquiring the team. Yet, Bush’s taking over the team likely wouldn’t be a cause for giving up a lifelong love for the Sox. Instead, one would have much the same reactions as those described above; rooting for the team on the field, condemning the owner’s politics off of it.

Moreover, one probably wouldn’t contest Bush’s right to buy and own a team, simply because as he President he oversaw policies that led to many needless deaths. Instead, one would accept the convention that, except in the severest, most negligent cases, we don’t hold former politicians personally responsible for harms caused in their capacity as public officials, so long as no laws were broken. (It’s probably a good thing we don’t either; if leaders thought they would be put on trial for all their mistakes and misjudgments in office, they’d be very unlikely to give up office willingly when they lost elections– an essential preconditon for a stable democracy.)

Finally, consider a third scenario. This time Bush is out of politics, and buys the Red Sox. But instead of simply using the team as a retirement gift to himself, he uses it as a tool to rehabilitate his image, as a platform for an eventual return to politics. Winning two or three World Series as owner just might increase his popularity to the point where he could once again run for president and win. (This scenario is a little far-fetched, to say the least, but let’s stay with it for the sake of the argument.)

Now how would your anti-Bush Red Sox feel? A lot less happy. Because in this scenario, a win for the Red Sox becomes a win for Bush; one would feel internally conflicted every time the Red Sox won a game. And yet, you probably wouldn’t hope for them to lose either. A miserable, contradictory state of mind would descend upon anti-Bush Red Sox fans. One’s sporting love would be at war with one’s political principles.

Hopefully the parallel between these imaginary scenarios and Thaksin Shinawatra’s purchase of Manchester City is fairly clear. But the question is, which of the three scenarios does it fit, from the standpoint of a City fan who also believes Thaksin’s regime was characterized by serious abuses of power?

If one also believes that Thaksin is in fact retired from Thai politics, then either the first or second scenarios describe above would apply. If one thought that Thaksin’s involvement with City would be sufficiently engaging to keep him from attempting to return to Thai politics, one might view it as a positively good thing, even if one detested Thaksin’s politics and thought he should be held accountable for human rights violations. At worst, one could continue to support the club, feeling confident than in doing so one wasn’t also contributing to the success of a political leader at odds with one’s political and moral principles.

But if one believes that Thaksin is using the club as a platform for rehabilitating his image, with the aim of eventually regaining control of Thailand, one would have a much more negative view of the situation. In this case, you’d view every victory for City as a propaganda victory for Thaksin and a small step towards his return to power. Watching City win would thus bring you no joy, and yet you wouldn’t want to watch them lose either. Probably, you’d try to avoid watching altogether.

So which of these scenarios is right? One desperately wants to believe that Thaksin’s takeover at City is more similar to the first and second Bush-buys-the-Red-Sox scenarios than the third scenario, and that Thaksin is not being disingenuous and misleading in saying he has given up his political ambitions.

For now, we’re willing to keep an open mind on this important point; perhaps Thaksin really has retired from politics and simply wants to help the Thai people in capacities outside of wielding political power.

As the title of the blog indicates, however, we remain skeptical, and worry that Thaksin’s true intentions are not quite so simple.

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4 Comments on “Is Thaksin’s Takeover at City a Good Thing? An Argument and an Analogy”

  1. […] Before going on to consider that question however, it’s worth observing that there is an alternative, fifth position a City fan might take, hinted at previously in this post. […]

  2. JSM Says:

    What if the nefarious ex-politician is simply trying to keep his family’s money beyond the arm of the law by putting into a sports team as an investment vehicle? Thaksin/W may one day stand on the scaffold but he would comfort himself with the thought that his heirs could continue to prosper by running a profitable sports team or else cashing it in. Even if his heirs sell it for less than what he bought it for, that’s still money that his enemies back home can’t touch. I believe this may be more relevant than the other scenarios mentioned.

    I couldn’t disagree more with the suggestion that leaders ought not be subject to ex post accountability for official actions simply because that would encourage them to hang onto power illegally. That’s like saying hostage-takers shouldn’t be punished because the knowledge of what they’re in for would make them less likely to surrender peacefully. Your suggestion correctly identifies an unfortunate fact about human incentives — but without persuading me that in response we ought to give up on the core democratic requirement of popular control, to which ex post accountability is meant to give effect.

  3. thadw Says:

    JSM, glad to see you making your long-awaited appearance here.

    Good point in first paragraph. What I’d say is that I wouldn’t be quite as bothered by that as a City supporter than if I thought the motivation was primarily as a tool to regain power.

    Re second paragraph, if you can bust an ex-politician for breaking the law, more power to you. But typically you don’t bust an ex-politician for bad (but legal) POLICY, even if that bad policy led to many deaths. If you went that route, too, you could have arguments about not just deaths actively caused, but deaths failed to prevent, etc. And, I contend you’d have the makings of a vindictive political culture in which trust across partisan interests would break down.

    I’m all for busting ex-pols who break the LAW however. That’s why ironically in Thaksin’s case he’s a lot more likely to get busted on corruption than on the human rights stuff, even though the human rights stuff is in my mind at least a lot more serious, because it’s a lot easier (one would think) to show he broke the law. The question though is how much legitimacy the Thai courts will be perceived to possess under the circumstances of a junta government, both within Thailand and internationally.

  4. fall Says:

    (i)human rights stuff…The question though is how much legitimacy the Thai courts will be perceived…(/i)

    IMO, in any case, the court have to show that they are impartial AND equally apply.
    So even if Thaksin manage to be tried for human right, no matter what the outcome. If other cases (ie soldier brutallity on South or police excessive force on Prem house’s mob) are not also on tried. The legitimacy of Thai court could be argue that it does not equally apply the law to everyone.

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