Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thailand's Abhisit’s Oxford Education a ‘Liability’ Amid Turmoil (Update2)

(Adds stock market close in second paragraph.)

By Daniel Ten Kate

April 8 (Bloomberg) -- Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was born in the English city of Newcastle and attended Eton College and Oxford University. Opponents say his elite upbringing makes him ill-suited to heal social upheaval that forced him to declare a state of emergency for a second time.

Abhisit yesterday granted security forces powers to disperse thousands of protesters who capped a month of rallies by storming Parliament, forcing lawmakers to flee by helicopter. Stocks fell the most in almost six months today, with the benchmark SET Index down 3.5 percent at the close in Bangkok.

Many of the red-shirted demonstrators are loyal to exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire who won over the poor by giving them cheap health care and loans. The demonstrators, angered by one of Asia’s widest income gaps, say Abhisit embodies a privileged class of military officers, judges, bureaucrats and royal advisers that sits above the law.

“Abhisit’s Oxford education, while valuable at some levels, is now a liability,” said Suranand Vejjajiva, Abhisit’s cousin and a former spokesman for Thaksin’s party. “He thinks that by implementing programs for the poor he can win them over, but he’s missing the point. They see him as the representative of the elite, and they’re angry about injustice.”

Using force now would underpin the notion of a double standard after anti-Thaksin rivals were allowed to seize Bangkok’s airports in 2008, said protest leader Weng Tojirakarn.

‘Not Afraid’

“We’re not afraid because what we’re doing is right,” he said by phone after Abhisit issued the emergency decree last night. “Even if they suppress us violently, they cannot stop what we believe.”

In Thaksin’s northern Thailand stronghold, farmers say they see the southern-based ruling party as aloof.

Kneeling around a campfire in Chiang Rai province last month, Noonai Binsamun said Abhisit’s party draws up policies from the comfort of Bangkok’s air-conditioned rooms rather than mingling upcountry with the poor to hear their grievances.

“We don’t need a higher education to tell right from wrong,” said Noonai, a 53-year-old rice farmer. “Abhisit can speak very well and has some good ideas, but he can’t change the double standards in society.”

2007 Elections

In 2007, Abhisit’s Democrat party won 6 of 176 seats in the north and northeast, home to 40 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people. Per capita income in those areas is about a third of that in Bangkok, where he won 75 percent of seats.

Abhisit, who moved from his downtown residence to an army barracks last month because of safety concerns, says protesters have violated the constitution. The emergency decree bans gatherings of more than five people, allows detention without charge and gives soldiers immunity from prosecution.

The government today blocked access to the Web site of the main opposition group. The site had been hosting live video and audio of speeches by leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.

For the year, the SET Index has risen 6.7 percent and the baht is trading close to a 22-month high.

Thailand’s industrial production rose for a sixth month in February. The Finance Ministry on March 29 raised its growth forecast for this year to as much as 5 percent. The $261-billion economy contracted 2.3 percent in 2009.

Nine Coups

Since 1946, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej took the throne as an 18-year-old, Thailand has seen nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers. Only two of 17 constitutions since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 have mandated parliaments that are entirely elected. The king, who is revered across the nation, has been in hospital since Sept. 19 and hasn’t spoken publicly about the current demonstrations.

Abhisit himself has never won a national election: He was picked by legislators in December 2008 after a court dissolved the pro-Thaksin ruling party for election fraud. The decision coincided with the seizure of Bangkok’s airports by protesters wearing yellow shirts who supported Abhisit.

Born in northeast England because his father was studying there, Abhisit went to Satit Chula, an elementary school linked to Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s oldest institution of higher learning. He moved back to England to attend Eton, founded by King Henry VI in 1440, and then Oxford. One of his friends and classmates: London Mayor Boris Johnson. He entered politics in 1992, a year after the military appointed his father to serve in the Cabinet following a coup.

Courting Countryside

As premier, Abhisit, 45, has pumped money into the countryside, giving cash handouts, waiving fees for schoolbooks, offering free health care and providing income guarantees for farmers.

The policies aim to bridge an income gap that is greater than those in China and India, the World Bank said in a November report. The richest 20 percent of the population earn about 55 percent of the income while the poorest fifth get 4 percent, the study showed.

Thaksin and his allies have won the past four elections. The former leader has orchestrated protests from overseas since fleeing a Thai jail sentence in 2008. Abhisit must call elections by the end of 2011.

--With assistance from Anuchit Nguyen, Supunnabul Suwannakij, Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Yumi Teso in Bangkok. Editors: Anne Swardson, Bill Austin

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