As Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, settles into his second term, he has put out signals that his style of government might be kinder and gentler than the previous term. On Monday, Mr Thaksin received a list of 48 nominations for a 'National Reconciliation Committee', chaired by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, which will devote itself to finding solutions to the violence racking Thailand's southern provinces. Today, the Thai parliament will begin its first joint session in more than a decade to debate the insurgency. But will a so-called reconciliation committee - the brainchild of the opposition Democrat Party - come up with any practical solutions to what seems like an intractable problem in a highly political environment? And will Thailand's famously brash prime minister really listen to his political rivals? Mr Thaksin's critics don't think so. They accuse him of paying lip service to such committees to score political points. Many expect the prime minister to charge ahead with his authoritarian agenda in his second term. One of the prime minister's most outspoken critics, Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor of The Nation newspaper, says Mr Thaksin is 'a leader in a hurry' with little use for the proclamations of feel-good committees. Mr Chongkittavorn says former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and former senior minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew - both to whom Mr Thaksin is sometimes compared as a potential 'benevolent dictator' - had decades to profoundly reshape their societies. He says Mr Thaksin has had only one four-year term, with a second having begun on March 14, and he will waste little time sharing the spotlight with his rivals. But reshaping Thai society is exactly what Mr Thaksin aims to do, and the two reins by which he has steered Thailand have been the military and the media. A professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds, Duncan McCargo, and Ukrist Pathmanand, a senior researcher at the Institute of Asian Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, conclude in their recent book The Thaksinization of Thailand, that control of these two pillars of society has enabled Mr Thaksin to lead 'the most authoritarian government Thailand has seen in the last 30 years'. Mr Thaksin's moves indicate that he has kept in mind the instability of the recent political past, which saw nine governments between 1991 and 2001 and the most recent military coup in 1991. He has stacked the military with those close to him - mainly from his days at the police academy in the 1970s - with seemingly scant regard for their capabilities. In one year, Mr Thaksin appointed more than 35 of his police academy classmates to key military positions. His most controversial appointment was that of his cousin, Chaisit Shinawatra, to Army Commander-in-Chief. Commander Chaisit is widely seen as having bungled the handling of the conflict with Muslims in the south. And it is the situation in the south - where more than 630 people have died in the past 14 months - that is the most dangerous to Mr Thaksin, and where his control of the military has been put to the greatest test. In the only area to vote overwhelmingly against him in the February election, 'voter turnout was tellingly more than 70 per cent, implying that the electorate in those areas still felt as part of the Thai state, but had clearly rejected Thaksin and the TRT [Thai Rak Thai Party]', according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University. Animosity is also growing among Thais in areas to the north, as talk of the 'ethnic cleansing' of Buddhists in the south is starting to seep into public conversation after a rash of assassinations of Buddhist teachers, judges, professors and government officials. Contrary to Mr Thaksin's welcoming of a national reconciliation committee, his ideas have been based more on military power than compromise. One such example was a proposal to carve the deep south into zones, with violence-prone areas which would be known as 'red zones' to be denied government development aid. This led one leading newspaper editor to compare it to Russia's handling of Chechnya, with its collective punishment of villages sympathetic to rebels. As Pairat Pongpanich, foreign editor of the Thai-language Matichon newspaper, remarked, Mr Thaksin's idea of tying development funds to the zoning scheme sent the message 'that you don't want the red zone village to survive'. Aides to Mr Thaksin said last month that the government had backed away from the zoning proposal. Meanwhile, the situation in the south continues to worsen. Zachary Abuza, associate professor of political science and international relations at Simmons College in Boston, said at a recent regional conference in Manila that regional terrorist groups, notably Jemaah Islamiah, had been helping insurgents from the south. He pointed to more sophisticated car bombs and tactical measures on the part of insurgents and warned that the bombings could make their way to the capital. Mr Thaksin has only added fuel to the fire with his acerbic rhetoric on the conflict, which has also exacerbated relations with his Muslim neighbours. Malaysia, in particular, is not likely to stand by if Thai government violence against Muslims who are ethnic Malays continues. Incidents like the one last April at Krue Se Mosque in Pattani, where 108 militants and five security forces were killed, and the killing of 78 protestors, mainly due to suffocation in over-crowded trucks at Tak Bai in Narathiwat in late October, generated widespread outrage against Mr Thaksin's government. The demotion of several generals after the deaths in Tak Bai was widely seen as a slap in the face for southerners seeking justice. Has Mr Thaksin made a faustian bargain with the military, whereby he would not seriously countenance peace incentives with insurgents and would not crack down on military figures who preside over human rights violations, in return for unmitigated support? Inflated military budgets have been hotly contested since the 1997 constitution and an active insurgency builds support for maintaining, or increasing, that budget. Chongkittavorn goes one step further, alleging that Mr Thaksin 'would like to see the perpetuation of the crisis in the south because it will distract attention from other issues, such as malfeasance in the government'. This would seem far-fetched were it not the same billionaire prime minister who in May last year attempted to purchase the Liverpool Football Club in an apparent effort to distract the populace from a no-confidence debate in parliament. Prime Minister Thaksin is known for his caustic handling of the media and for lashing out at his critics. He has seemed unfamiliar with, or at least unsympathetic to, the idea of a free press as an essential part of democratic society, once remarking: 'Today, serving your country is more important than sending your news dispatches daily to your editors. Think before you do anything that damages the country.' Mr Thaksin's methods for controlling the media have grown more sophisticated than simply brow-beating journalists into submission, although he has not given that up. He once gave out free mobile phones to reporters - before having them all returned after complaints from the Reporters Association of Thailand - and on another occasion he gave out free gold necklaces hidden in slices of cake at a party for business reporters. But Mr Thaksin's main means of control has been through his business empire. The Thai Journalists Association declared 2001, Mr Thaksin's first year in power, as 'the year of media intimidation'. In that year, his Shin Corp bought the independent television network iTV and immediately fired 21 of its most outspoken journalists. On March 8, the Supreme Court ruled that the journalists were illegally dismissed and were to be reinstated with back salary paid. While this was a victory for Thai journalism, many wondered how they could go back to work at the station under the current environment. With its control of iTV, the government-run networks and a majority of radio networks, the TRT monopoly on broadcasting has rendered independent broadcast journalism all but extinct. In print journalism, Mr Thaksin's grip has been almost as absolute. In February last year, the editor of The Bangkok Post was ousted in a move widely seen as resulting from government pressure precipitated by the newspaper's critical editorial stances. The government can claim that it had nothing to do with the editor's removal, but the writing is on the wall that if you want advertising from any of the considerable number of businesses owned by Mr Thaksin or his ilk, you had better toe the government line. And apparently not much seems to slip by the so-called 'media monitoring centre' that the TRT was alleged - by The Nation in December 2001 - to run in the government spokesperson's office. The centre was claimed to label articles as either 'supportive', 'critical', 'misleading' or 'hostile'. The survivor thus far in Mr Thaksin's quest for media domination has been The Nation Group, which features the English-language The Nation and the Thai-language Krungthep Thurakit, both of which have remained critical of the prime minister. But investors linked to Surija Jungrungreangkit, the transport minister and secretary-general of TRT, recently bought a majority share of The Nation Group, and there are concerns that the independent stance of The Nation will be compromised. So far, nothing has changed in the newsroom of The Nation. But pick up the paper and compare the number of advertisements in it with The Bangkok Post and it is not difficult to surmise the publication is being squeezed. A senior editor at The Nation, who wished to remain anonymous, lamented the fact that it is now being called 'an opposition newspaper'. He was critical of Mr Thaksin, in particular his handling of the situation in the south, but said he was worried about the 'possibility of painting ourselves into a corner with reactionary editorial content'. He said he had 'greater concern for Thai journalism than what Thaksin might do to democracy'. The irony is that what Mr Thaksin does to Thai journalism, he does to Thai democracy.