Sucking up and sucking in

2 07 2010

AP reports on a new campaign by the military-backed and royalist regime of Abhisit Vejjajiva to overcome the negative image it has internationally following the bloody events of April and May and to deter criticism of its increasing authoritarianism.

According to the report, the government has established a campaign called “Thailand’s Best Friends” or “TBF.” For those 150 selected as TBF – which sounds a little like juvenile Facebook plagiarism – get “[s]pa pampering, dinner with the prime minister, speedy lines at the airport” and more. In fact, looking a bit like a Most Wanted list, most of them had their names and small photos in a Bangkok Post wraparound a couple of days ago.

PPT could only wonder what had happened to the “best friends” where the government couldn’t even come up with their photos. PPT was also left bemused by the fact that almost none of the 150 seemed to be well-known or from major companies. TBFs are apparently “150 of the top importers of Thai goods from 43 countries…”. Prime Minister Abhisit invited them “for a four-day expenses paid trip this week that includes spa pampering and horseback rides down the beach.”

It is something of a surprise to learn that the Ministry of Commerce started the TBF campaign “a year ago with 50 companies but organizers decided this year to triple the number and throw in new gifts like the beach trip as it seeks to stimulate exports and restore confidence.” To be honest, PPT hadn’t heard of it. The expansion comes at an opportune time for the Abhisit regime.

AP reports that this jaunt “cost the Ministry of Commerce 72 million baht ($2.2 million)…” with the assumption that this is “just a fraction of what it’s getting in return. Orders from the foreign companies — selected by Thailand’s top exporters — are expected to exceed 66 billion baht ($2 billion) this year.” That might be true, but will this propaganda exercise increase exports? Probably not. But the propaganda value for the authoritarian regime is arguably worth more than $2 million.

Abhisit apparently made fawning statements about the jaunt at taxpayers expense as being “a gesture of our appreciation to you [TBF’s], who are our valuable customers, our ‘best friends’ and our real friends…”. This “real friends” line is one being used with a range of people, including foreign academics, where critics of the current government are frozen out of official contacts. It is clear that in the regime’s warped vision, a friend can’t also be a critic.

The group that was named TBFs will, over the next two years, get “special discounts at hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions, fast-track immigration processing at the airport and a hot line to the Ministry of Commerce.” This does sound a bit like Thaksin Shinawatra’s elite card program of a few years ago, but his administration asked people to pay for privileges rather than just giving them away.

That scheme wasn’t a huge success, and even participants in the TBF campaign expressed skepticism. Again, though, international propaganda is supremely important to the regime as it sucks up to people and attempts to suck in others.



%d bloggers like this: