Conversations with Thaksin: a sycophantic approach to biography

Tom Plate's style in the Giants of Asia series is never less than softly-softly, but it is not without merit, as his revealing biography of the former Thai prime minister illustrates.

Thaksin Shinawatra, centre, having made his fortune from telecommunications, is revealed in Tom Plate's Giants of Asia series, to have a dozen mobile phones on the go at any given moment. Saeed Khan / AFP
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Conversations with Thaksin is the third in the Giants of Asia series, a set of very strange but nonetheless fascinating books by Tom Plate, a former Los Angeles Times executive who now insists on calling himself "Professor Tom". I say strange because outside of court biographers, it is unlikely that any writer would approach these subjects - before the former Thai premier he covered Malaysia's Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore - in so relentlessly sycophantic a manner. Even fellow admirers of these men would cavil at the way "Professor Tom", who has taught courses at universities in America and lectured at the UAE University in Al Ain, bends over backwards to share their sense of being misunderstood by the international community and the western world in particular.

Lee, for instance, has been completely synonymous with Singapore's governance and its phenomenal success even since before full independence in 1965; but he has never made any secret of his dismissive views about democracy and individual rights. "We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think," as he once put it. Plate is quite right to state that Lee is not the authoritarian ogre he is sometimes caricatured as - "not remotely ... some crackpot Pol Pot, nor some hare-brained 'Little Hitler'" (the latter insult famously came courtesy of William Safire in The New York Times). One might, however, not go as far as Plate by saying instead that he is "the Clint Eastwood of Asia, a definite straight shooter", the "Masterful Mind" mesmerised "by the dance of brilliant ideas ... And - gosh! - consider that his own autobiography (two immense volumes) is almost as lengthy as Winston Churchill's. Think about that." Gosh! - or should that be gush? - indeed.

Likewise, I would agree with Plate - although many would not - that Dr Mahathir, the almost equally dominant leader of Malaysia from 1981-2003, "was in fact the best living example of an effective moderate Muslim leader that in recent memory the world had seen". I'm not sure I'd want to begin by addressing him thus, however: "This book ... it's the reader having a long and maybe somewhat intimate conversation with Dr M. The idea is to feel his personality, his flair, his instincts, his brain. Nobody else is like you."

Beyond that, the tone is folksy, often to the point of grating, and we learn far more about Plate's own life than is desirable: his problems with his waistline, what he did when he realised he was going to be fired from the LA Times, the fact that his father had a temper and so did his best friend at college, his wife's opinion of his wish to be liked; and so on and so on.

This is all the more irritating because despite their apparent ubiquity in their heydays, these "Giants of Asia" could be difficult to get to. My own efforts to interview Lee Kuan Yew began with a three-hour grilling by both the Singapore High Commissioner and his deputy in London, followed by the demand that for the request to go further, I must partner publication in the boutique, left-leaning New Statesman with a more mass-market right-of-centre journal. I came up with The Daily Telegraph - Britain's best-selling quality newspaper - but, alas, Mr Lee and I are still no better acquainted. And when access is granted, the subject may not be in a revealing mood. My interview with Dr Mahathir, granted specifically so he could discuss a rather unflattering new biography of him, got off to an unpromising start when he pretended not to know what book I was talking about. All of which is to say: hasn't Plate, granted hours of one-on-one interviews with his subjects, seriously missed the chance to ask penetrating questions of three men who have so divided opinion that there is almost no ground between those who regard them as heroes and those who see them as tyrannical dictators?

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Perhaps stung by criticism of his first two books, Plate explains his softly-softly approach in his new volume on Thaksin Shinawatra: "You probably know that Sixty Minutes-style dice-and-slice questions usually get nowhere with major political figures. Instead you harden up, into the shell like that of a well-weathered tortoise. Bang on it as much and as hard as you want and all that will happen is the head will duck inside and you will be left all alone in the room by yourself."

Well, "Professor Tom" is certainly not one to wield the knife. He is prone to come up with analyses that other commentators have unaccountably overlooked, such as his suggestion that what Thailand needs is an international commission of reconciliation, on the board of which should sit Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi (assuming she is at liberty, which she has never been thus far, to leave and re-enter Myanmar), the Pope, Jimmy Carter and "every saint, all the goody types, you know?" How Plate thinks that Thailand and its king could possibly countenance such an intrusion into the country's politics is beyond comprehension.

But Plate's "Gee shucks, did they really say that about you?" style has a huge upside. His subjects open up to him in a way they may not have intended to, and the insights the reader gains into their characters are considerable; to the point that Plate's books, for all their faults, will be incomparable tools for historians, biographers and anyone who ever wants to figure out what made these men, who do deserve to be called "Giants of Asia", tick.

These insights do not always show these men in their best light. I'm not sure that Thaksin, who was widely accused during his premiership (2001-2006) of heavy-handedness in dealing with insurgencies in the Muslim south of Thailand, did himself any favours by letting slip his thoughts on the inhabitants of those parts. "Often the husband is very lazy. They want to stay all day in tea-houses, drinking tea, and then playing with the cuckoo bird, the one that can sing. It is the lady of the house who goes to work." Similarly his aside that when he plays golf with his friend Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia, sometimes they "tell boys' jokes" too off-colour to reproduce here. His reminiscence about the former Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi is better: "Once he told me, in front of China's Premier Zhu Rongji, 'You know, before my prime ministership I had a lot of girlfriends. Now, after becoming prime minister, I have a lot of security people!'"

Admittedly, Thaksin's fortune did originally come from telecommunications, but it is nevertheless telling to discover that he has an extraordinary 12 mobile phones permanently on the go (he fibs and says the number is only eight, but Plate finds him out). Likewise not many interviews with former premiers end up yielding confessions such as "I lose weight, and now I am very proud of my tummy" - a line Plate interprets to mean that Thaksin is image-conscious as only a man keen to return to the limelight would be, despite his protestations that he wishes merely for a role "beneficial for the country and the people". All these, as well as Plate's perception that Thaksin suffers from "severe loneliness", add to a rounding out of his character and win him a degree of sympathy that appears to justify his interlocutor's approach.

More serious are Thaksin's admissions that he ignored the warnings about the military coup that toppled him in 2006, responsibility for which he points squarely at General Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the Privy Council and the king's closest adviser - thus risking the charges of antimonarchism that his enemies always alleged. He also undermines his ardent professions about national reconciliation and forgiveness when he offhandedly remarks that he believes his foes will eventually be hauled up in front of the International Criminal Court. Given that his sister, Yingluck, is now prime minister, and that his chances of returning to Thailand without being arrested or assassinated must be reckoned as better than at any point since his ousting, such comments are highly relevant, if not necessarily helpful to his cause.

But they are all part of why this new book on Thaksin is the most successful of Plate's series so far. Dr Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew may remain very vocal (too vocal for his successors' comfort, in the case of Dr M), but they are retired. There is no chance they will lead their countries again, and while their records deserve to be examined more even-handedly than their western detractors tend to do, in those books Plate comes across as too much the apologist keen to readjust the political obituaries. In the case of Thaksin, it is clear that he burns to return from exile and that he still hungers after power. The "deliverance" to which Plate refers in the title of this book has yet to happen. This lends it an urgency the others lack. It also adds a little more bite to "Professor Tom's questioning. He should concentrate in future on other leaders whose careers have come to a premature halt but who hope to resume them. Other such "Giants" are, after all, not in short supply in Asia.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a frequent commentator on South-east Asian politics and religion.