Friday, February 29, 2008

Thaksin's perfect PR

Whether you like him or not (I don't) there can be no doubting that Thaksin Shiniwatra is one of the best media manipulators of all time. Should the telecommunications tycoon ever seek a new challenge, he could surely become a billionaire all over again as a PR consultant.

The publicity stunts are nothing new to him, of course. When Thaksin first came to power in 2002 and suddenly became charged by the NCCC for his "honest mistake" , the PM would actually arrive some distance from the courts and walk the rest of the way. This was so he could be mobbed by cheering supporters and accept their gifts before delivering one of his stirring populist speeches. In a country with judicial systems and checking bodies still being developed, it placed serious pressure on those who deliberated over his future. One judge admitted he had felt "heavily pressured".

Perhaps it was a learning experience for the PM, as he played the style of the benign victim extremely well whenever he came under pressure. During the class clashes of '06 Thaksin would frequently rally his supporters in the north with talk such as: "I want to supply a computer for every kid in school! Do you think that is cool?".

Still the best was saved for the international audience after the coup. In Jan 2007, as CNN cameras rolled, Mr Shiniwat sat looking almost like a school kid as he told the interviewer "I don't believe that this can happen again in the 21st century". The former leader has understandably never sounded his most confident when speaking English but there seemed to be extra shyness in his voice that day. Viewers must have felt great sorrow for him.

And finally of course, who could fail to be moved by the sight of the prodigal son kissing the ground in delight as he stepped on Thai soil yesterday? I guess he managed to hold his delight until the cameras could film him, or maybe the carpet of the VIP room at which the former fugitive was dropped off just didn't seem as tempting.

Yet the master stroke was still to come. Thaksin must have smiled to himself as he launched a 'coup' of his own, the ultimate PR stunt. Behind his entourage , immaculately suited, came Manchester City players Casper Schmeical and Kelvin Etuhu. The former may not be as legendary as his father, but the sight of EPL players was all that was required. They waved and smiled to the crowd who returned the compliment with cheers and shouts of delight. I swear, if you didn't know better you'd think it was an FA Cup victory parade. A perfectly crafted moment reached its pinnacle when the duo announced they had come: "to coach Thai children".

And who was the man responsible for this? Who did the duo describe as: " a good man who loves Thailand"? Why, the same man who the old elite want to charge with corruption! The message was lost on nobody.

Populism has been around as long as politics, but I wonder if anybody has ever quite embodied and epitomised it as well as Khun Thaksin. Whatever anybody thinks of his antics, his public relations finesse can never be denied. The only question is : does he put that genius to use for better or for worse?

I wonder if a certain senior statesman was so impressed with the show, and how much did it cost Mr Thaksin for that show to take place at all?

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