Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s credibility has taken a severe beating over the bird flu crisis, with allegations that his government covered up the outbreak of the lethal disease in Thailand for weeks.
After repeatedly denying that the illness killing millions of chickens in Thailand since November was avian influenza, the government on January 23 finally admitted that the disease had after all been detected.
The families of two six-year-old boys who have become the kingdom’s first human victims, and farmers furious at the destruction of their livelihoods in a mass cull of more than 18 mlilion chickens, have led the public outrage.
The government conceded last Wednesday, as Thailand hosted international talks aimed at forging a united response to the crisis engulfing 10 Asian nations, that it had "screwed up" in its handling of the outbreak.
It denied a deliberate cover-up, however, blaming inept bureaucrats for failing to reveal the extent of the disaster earlier and pledging that heads would roll once the immediate crisis had eased.
"It wasn’t a clever move and it has failed to rescue the sinking reputation and popularity of the government," said Sunai Phasuk, spokesman for regional human rights network Forum-Asia.
The finger-pointing showed that Thaksin’s Thak Rak Thai party, which blazed onto the political scene in 2001 with a landslide election win and promises of a new era of government, was no different from other Thai parties, he said.
Thaksin, a former police officer and billionaire telecoms tycoon before turning his hand to politics, has promoted himself as a CEO-style governor who makes difficult decisions in a snap.
Thailand’s highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has chided Thaksin for his arrogance and inability to brook criticism.
Analysts say Thaksin’s approach has spawned the current crisis which he has described as the worst he has faced.
"He presents himself as a can-do governor and CEO and there must be no mistakes and problems, so Thailand in short is picture-perfect. Officials and ranking cabinet ministers don’t dare to report problems to him," Sunai said.
"It doesn’t matter how smart he is, if he receives wrong information he can’t make the right decisions."
Thaksin’s authoritarian style has also cowed Thailand’s press, which is accused of standing meekly by as the government kept the outbreak under wraps.
"No media outlet was suspicious of the disease and instead dutifully reported that everything was under control," the Nation newspaper’s commentator Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote last week.
"Before Thaksin came to power, the media were more inquisitive since the atmosphere of a free press was conducive to investigative reporting. Now spoon-fed information and tailor-made news are the norm."
Thaksin’s admission that the government suspected bird flu weeks ago, but did not voice its fears in order to allay panic, met with a withering response from the European Union, Thailand’s second-largest chicken buyer.
Stopping just short of calling him a liar, a European Commission spokeswoman said independent checks would be required before imports could resume.
"In these circumstances … of non-transparency … a complete reliance on Thai assurances does not seem to be the best way to go foward," she said.
The crisis, together with spiralling violence in the Muslim-majority south, has taken its toll on the normally ebullient premier who has appeared haggard and dejected in recent days.
It will prove to be a stern test of his popularity, which until now has proved resilient despite various mis-steps, and has been particularly strong in the countryside which is worst-hit by bird flu.
The crisis may even have dented Thaksin’s claim for the mantle of Southeast Asia’s dominant statesman which he appeared poised to take after Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad retired last year.
"This has cost his popularity dearly and, internationally, undermined his prospects of becoming the region’s leader. People are dying and our export sector has been hit badly," Sunai said.