The ASEAN Plus 3 Summit, which was to take place in the Thai resort of Pattaya, had to be cancelled due to attacks by anti-government protesters. Some 1,000 protesters broke the glass doors to the Royal Cliff Beach Hotel where the summit was to take place and stormed inside, demanding the resignation of the Thai prime minister.
The leaders of other Asian countries fled to the roof and escaped by helicopter. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and a few of the first ladies even shed tears of fear. Scenes usually reserved for action films, and unimaginable at global summits, ended up taking place.
The protesters were supporters of ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, mainly farmers and the urban poor. These people took action last year when anti-Thaksin protesters occupied the government complex and airport, prompting the Thai constitutional court to order the dissolution of the ruling party, thereby demolishing a political group that could succeed the ousted leader.
These people believe that Thaksin, who is in exile after being overthrown in a military coup in September of 2006, should be reinstated. Thaksin is under fire for incurring 400 billion baht (W12 trillion, US$1=W1,329) in losses to state coffers due to corrupt bidding and bribes as he pursued 95 major projects during his tenure. His family's businesses are also under suspicion of evading taxes, abusing authority and purchasing state-owned land at knockdown prices. Yet Thaksin remains the most influential politician in Thailand. If reinstated, there is a strong possibility that he would immediately become prime minister again following a general election.
The fervent support is the result of effective populist policies. As soon as he came to power in 2001, Thaksin ensured that every Thai citizen could receive basic medical services at a cost of 30 baht (W1,100). Seeking to narrow the wage gap between urban and rural areas, he doled out 1 million baht (W37 million) to each village and erased the debt held by farmers. The side effects of such generosity were deterioration in the quality of medical services and increased unrest among the middle class, who were stuck with higher taxes. But Thaksin won the solid support of farmers and the urban poor.
The situation is the same for the Hugo Chavez regime of Venezuela. Chavez won the hearts and minds of the poor by throwing oil money at them. Recently, he also paved the way for himself to serve indefinitely by ratifying a reform bill that abolishes limits on a president's terms. Clearly populism is a powerful drug for both politicians and the public. Once addicted, it is difficult to quit, even though the debilitating side effects are obvious. History teaches us that almost without exception, populism leads to the tragedy of economic failure. We need to be wary of the poisonous residue of the populist policies pursued by the previous administration and look for ways to detoxify our society.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Ki-cheon