Archive for September 2007

“When I Return, I Will Do So As a Private Citizen”

September 30, 2007

Thaksin Shinawatra delivered a major address to the Foreign Press Association this past week. In the talk he makes some critical comments about the junta, praises the king,  defends his own time in office, and declares his innocence of all charges against him. He also stresses he’s done with politics: “When I return, I will do so as a private citizen.” Thaksin says that his future will be in business and philanthropy.

He also says he’s committed to Manchester City “for the long term” and that “nothing would please him more” than for City to win the Premiership title.

We’ll refrain from further comment on this speech, but both its timing and its substance are noteworthy.

City 3, Newcastle 1; “Long Live the King of Thailand”

September 30, 2007

Manchester City’s terrific start to the season continued with a scintillating 3-1 home victory over Newcastle United Saturday, capped by Elano’s stunning free kick.

The improvement in the football isn’t the only thing that’s different at the City of Manchester Stadium this year. A Thai site that has linked to this blog provides this picture from inside the stadium of the message “Long Live the King of Thailand.”

The guess here is that the purpose of the message is not to persuade City fans in attendance to keep the king in their nightly prayers, but rather is intended for consumption by any Thai fans who happen to catch a glimpse of it via television.

Further comments and  observations on what this is all about from readers would be welcome….long-live-the-king-of-thailand.jpg

Interview with “Socca Critics”

September 25, 2007

I was interviewed today by the website Socca Critics.

Below I’ve reprinted the complete Q and A:

just received your E Mail and for me, it would be great to interview you and have it published in Socca Critics [as well as my other blogs]. Here are the questions and please take all the time you need in answering them.

  1. How did the concept of Thaksin Skeptic get created?

I had been following and participating in the debate about Thaksin and the takeover on a couple of City message boards, especially Blue Moon, since the end of last season in May. Over the course of that time, I did quite a bit of research on Thaksin, and found both his regime and Thai politics as a whole extremely interesting. After the takeover went through, I put together an essay summarizing my thoughts and quite mixed feelings about it that got circulated on some City websites as well as an academic blog devoted to Southeast Asian politics, New Mandala. I thought that would be that, but the debate picked up again after Human Rights Watch issued its famous letter to the Premier League calling Thaksin not a fit and proper person to own a club.

At that point it became clear to me both that it would be impossible to have a serious discussion about the complex of issues within a message board context, and that it might be valuable both for my own sake and that of other interested people to put down in a systematic way an account of the key issues. The best way to do that was to start the blog.

I also wanted to show that not all City fans are unaware of or unconcerned with the human rights charges against Thaksin; and to develop the argument that it’s possible to support City while refraining from endorsing all of Thaksin’s record or any political ambitions he may continue to have.

2. According to statistics that I received in websites such as BBC 606, there appears to have been a massive support for Thaksin since he acquired Manchester City. Early in 2007, my statistics showed 40% support and now they show 75% support;

2A. Could it be that Thaksin needs to be given a chance as a football club owner?

For me the issue has never really been Thaksin’s competence in running a football club. In general I’m opposed to capitalist ownership of football clubs—I’d prefer a system in which supporters owned the clubs—and failing that, I’m in favor of local private ownership. But given that the Premier League is not now organized around the principles of supporter ownership or of local ownership, I have no particular objection to the idea of someone from Thailand buying the club, as opposed to someone from America, Russia, or Iceland.

The issue is the record in office of Thaksin as a politician and what his motivations for buying City may be.

That said, if you put the political and ethical questions aside, yes of course Thaksin needs time to show he knows what he’s doing. So far most, from a purely footballing point of view, would say he’s made a very good start of it.

2B. Is it possible that fears of Thaksin have receded?

Well, some of the worst scenarios I and other skeptics were worried about haven’t come to pass to date. For me, it’s a big deal that the club doesn’t use its resources to fight Thaksin’s political and legal battles. There were some statements criticizing human rights groups on the club website in late July that I thought were very inappropriate, and I complained about it to the club. Since then though the website at least has refrained from any comment on Thaksin’s legal and political problems, which is appropriate.

More generally, people have adjusted to the idea of the club being owned by a controversial figure who every week seems to have a new legal charge thrown at him or a new account frozen. Right now, Thaksin is insulated from those charges by the fact that the UK isn’t going to extradite him to face charges so long as the military junta is in charge, at least. Only after the elections in Thailand in December and after the formation of a new government will we be able to form a clear picture of where Thaksin stands. It’s possible the cases against him will collapse or be dropped, but it’s also possible he’ll get convicted of something on the watch of a democratically elected government, which would raise all kinds of questions for him and by extension the club.

2C. Is it possible that other questions should have been asked?

I’m on the record as being disappointed that there’s no evidence that City officials made any serious inquiry into the human rights issues prior to selling the club to Thaksin. But I think the real locus of blame lies with the Premier League, and even more so the government. The Premier League should broaden its “fit and proper person” test to look at other ethical questions besides financial probity. And the government, when asked, should weigh in on the question of whether a given former political leader has committed offenses of such magnitude that they shouldn’t be allowed to set up shop in the UK. The decision to permit a club owner who’s been accused by credible organizations of being willfully complicit in thousands of extra-judicial deaths is one not to be taken lightly. But instead of seriously investigating the question, the club, the league, and the government all, in effect, looked the other way.

3. What was the decision behind Eriksson being appointed coach of Manchester City?

I think Thaksin wanted to get an internationally recognized manager whose very presence would send the message that this is a “big club.” I was a supporter of Eriksson all along, before it became clear Thaksin would get the club, though I also would have been content with Ranieiri, Hiddink, or another top European manager. Several years ago I read Sven’s book on coaching and mental preparation, and it is obvious that he is just miles more sophisticated about training and shaping a team than anyone the club has had before. So, I applaud the decision to hire Sven.

4. Is there still the fear that Thaksin maybe using Manchester City as a way to return to politics in Thailand? If this is so, did Thaksin violate his promise to stay out of politics? Is there a way to hold him accountable to his promise of separating politics from Manchester City?

Good question, and a hard question. It seems to me that Thaksin is keeping a relatively low profile in the UK, at least in the last few weeks. He’s certainly not advertising any political ambitions very vocally in England. Perhaps he knows that this just wouldn’t play very well with the English public. His continued liberty currently rests on the good will of the UK government and so he has no interest into making himself into any more of a controversial figure than he already is.

But if you take the view that Thaksin’s motivations for buying the club are at least in part political, then it’s important to understand that Thaksin’s not concerned so much with influencing English public opinion as opinion in Thailand. And he has indeed gotten an enormous amount of attention for buying the club in Thailand.

What the effect of that attention is remains unclear. Certainly it hasn’t won over those who disliked him, of whom there are many, especially in the Bangkok-based media. Those critics see the whole thing as a transparent political stunt and believe that in the end Thaksin will leave City in ruins. What’s hard to gauge is whether ownership of the club is shoring up support for Thaksin and his allies among the rural poor and others who formed an integral part of his electoral base.

Thaksin insists he’s personally retired from politics and I suspect this might be true in a narrow sense. Given the level of resentment and hatred against Thaksin among influential groups in Thailand, I just don’t see how he could ever return to power and be widely accepted. Political violence would become a serious possibility in that scenario.

But in the broader sense Thaksin almost has to be involved in what’s going on in Thailand. First, he has to defend himself against the legal charges, and the court of public opinion has helped him escape legal action before, going back to the narrow decision in 2001 by Thai courts to allow him to continue in politics despite some apparent violations of conflict of interest laws. Second, he’s got a lot of money in frozen accounts that I’m sure he’d like to get unfrozen. I’m sure he’s very keen that his former political associates do as well as possible when the elections come around.

If Thaksin were to violate his promises and run for office himself, I think City fans should demand that he give up personal control of the club. Hopefully that’s a bridge we won’t come to.

5. How could Thaksin Skeptic reach the people who love football especially Manchester City?

Through interviews like this, obviously! Seriously, blogs depend on links from bigger fish media to gain attention. Hard core City fans who are on the Internet all the time will be likely to have run across it as it’s gotten some attention in those venues. Unfortunately because of my teaching, research, and parenting schedule I don’t have time to aggressively market the blog or update it on a day-to-day basis but it’s there for anyone who wants to explore these issues. I have put out some inquiries about getting the analysis published as a short book.

6. Are there any mechanisms which could check where Thaksin received the money to purchase Manchester City or to see how the money is spent?

This is what the Asset Examination Committee created by the junta government is charged with doing. The concern is that perhaps some of the money was generated from the tax-free sale of the Shin Corporation, which is also under investigation. To me, however, the so-called “dirty money” issue isn’t really of fundamental importance. I’m not bothered where he got the specific funds to buy City from, given an understanding that Thaksin’s fortune rests largely on the political connections he forged in forming his empire.

7. How is Thaksin Skeptic able to balance between supporting Manchester City without having to support Thaksin?

Well, it’s pretty straightforward. You can support a team and not give two cents about the owner, or while thinking the owner is a bit of a bastard. Lots of fans at other clubs do it and City fans have in the past as well.

Seriously, it is a real question how someone who has strong political views that would make one skeptical of a figure like Thaksin can maintain a sense of personal integrity, and not feel that in supporting the club you’re violating your political ideals. Everyone has to answer that for themselves, but it’s important to raise the question. For me, the key thing is that one’s affections for City shouldn’t cloud one’s judgments about Thaksin as a leader.

In my case, evaluating Thaksin as a leader is particularly thorny because there are aspects of what Thaksin did in Thailand that I admire. I don’t see the question in black-and-white terms at all—he represented a rural majority that had long been treated in a condescending, paternalistic way, and actually delivered on his promises. Few leaders in the developing world do that much. At the same time, however, he showed very little respect for norms of liberal democracy, and the excesses of the war on drugs can’t be ignored.

The argument I develop in the blog, however, is that the worse you think Thaksin was as a leader of Thailand, the happier you should be that he’s off in England running a football club rather than back in power. But that argument holds water only so long as Thaksin in fact does not attempt to regain political power.

So I hope Thaksin doesn’t mess the club up, and if his money helps the club progress, as a fan I’ll be as pleased as anyone else. But I refuse to glorify the guy or to overlook the troubling side of his record. I also would not be displeased to see Thaksin have to stand trial or face hearings of some kinds regarding the war on drugs and its abuses. Ironically, his buying City may have made that more likely, because once (after the Human Rights Watch letter) the junta realized that this was an issue Thaksin is vulnerable on, they moved to set up an investigative commission, after not showing much previous concern about the issue.

But the bigger picture is, in my view, not whether Thaksin has to face up to such charges, but the future of constitutional democracy in Thailand. That future will be best served if Thaksin stays out of active political life—he’s just too divisive a figure. And, there is a case to be made that having some sort of show trial of Thaksin would just create another round of animosity and social tension in Thailand, when what the country needs to do is find a way to move on under the next government. So if Thaksin spends the rest of his years owning City and buying and selling footballers, that might not satisfy those who despise Thaksin and his former regime, but it could be a good thing for democracy in Thailand, to the extent it keeps him out of efforts to regain power.

8. What is your prediction for Manchester City for this season in all of its spheres such as EPL Championships, Owners, and Managers?

The football part is easier to predict, and that’s very rarely the case! Right now I’d say City are likely to finish in the top ten and have an even money chance on qualifying for an UEFA Cup spot. The squad is solid and they play well together, and I think Sven will over the course of the year help bring a consistency to the performances that City have always struggled to attain. But the squad is still small enough such that a rash of injuries could be very disruptive. With the way Tottenham has struggled, there’s an opportunity for a new club to finish as high as fifth, and at the moment you’d have to say it’s as likely to be City as anyone else.

As to managers, Sven’s not going anywhere.

The harder thing to predict now is how Thai politics will change after the December 23 elections and how this will affect Thaksin’s standing and the charges against him. Thaksin will be hoping his former allies—the People’s Power Party– win power, which would presumably pave the way for him to return to the country and would likely mean the end of the legal cases against him. If that doesn’t happen, it’s likely some of the legal cases against him will continue to go forward, and he’ll be under pressure to go back and face the charges under the new government. If you think about the most damaging scenario, in which he is actually convicted of something and sentenced to jail time, that would raise all kinds of questions about his ownership of City obviously.

One possibility is that one of his two children who are new board members at City would take over the chairman’s role; another is that he sells the club to earn revenue. I would guess the latter scenario is more likely; ownership of City is designed to help keep Thaksin out of jail, and if it fails to do that I don’t see how the club could be much use to him in jail. But even thinking about that scenario is to engage in pretty far flung speculation at this point.

An intermediate possibility is that a new government comes in, and reaches a bargain with Thaksin in which he accepts say a political ban and a large fine, but is allowed to keep his freedom and his business empire. If I had to bet right now it would be on something like that taking place, but no one really knows.

9. What will happen to Manchester City if the money used by Thaksin to purchase it was not there or was confiscated by the Thai Government? This question deals with a fact that his bank account was frozen?

I’ll skip this one—covered above, more or less.

10. If Manchester City ever plays a friendly in Thailand, would it be possible for Thaksin to make an appearance with his team?

It all depends on how politics in Thailand unfolds. An Asian tour in the summer for City would make all the sense in the world if Thaksin were just a deep-pocketed Thai businessman. But he’s much more than that—he’s a uniquely polarizing politician, beloved by many and hated by many others. It would be pretty humiliating for City to travel to Thailand and Thaksin not be able to join them out of concerns for his safety or to avoid arrest, so I doubt City will be visiting until politics there has calmed down considerably and Thaksin’s legal status is clarified.