It is impossible to discuss Thailand’s ongoing political problems without referring to the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. No other politician in Thailand has managed to divide opinion as much as Thaksin. He has been a figure-head for the red shirt movement but a figure of hate and revulsion for those opposed to the red shirts. No matter what happens to Thaksin now or in the future, his impact has already changed Thailand forever.
Born in 1949 in Chiang Mai northern Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra began his early career as a police officer. He received a scholarship to study for a masters degree in criminal justice in the United States and when he returned to Thailand took an interest in business. In the late 1980s Thaksin began to build his successful telecommunications empire. By the time he founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai) political party in 1998, Thaksin Shinawatra was one of the richest men in Thailand.
The Emergence of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai
Although the 1997 constitution was supposed to take the role of money out of Thai politics, multi-millionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was still able to tempt a number of Thai MPs to join his new party. In September 2000, an anti-corruption committee announced an investigation into Thaksin’s affairs and his apparent failure to disclose all of his business interests and assets when he was a minister in the previous government. Despite the accusations, TRT won the January 2001 elections and formed an alliance with two other parties. Later in 2001, the Constitutional Court narrowly cleared Thaksin of filing a false asset statement.
Thaksin lived up to his campaign promises that won him so much support amongst the poorer people in Thailand who had been largely ignored by previous governments. The Thaksin government provided a moratorium on debt payments for farmers and set up a loan-development scheme for thousands of Thai villages. Thaksin also established the nationwide 30-Baht health scheme which, for the first time, meant that millions of ordinary Thai people had affordable access to professional health care and hospital treatment.
Thaksin’s policies and style of leadership signalled a new era for Thailand and it wasn’t just the rural people who supported him. Thaksin, a successful businessman in his own right, was welcomed by many in Thailand’s business community and the Thai economy was strong during this period.
The War on Drugs
Thaksin also launched his controversial ‘war on drugs’. Thousands of people were arrested and there were numerous extra-judicial killings and shoot-outs. Thaksin claimed that the police were only directly responsible for a handful of fatalities with most of the deaths involving rival drug gangs killing each other. International human rights organisations didn’t agree with Thaksin’s assessment, but Thaksin’s war on drugs still received support from large sections of the domestic audience.
Problems in the Deep South
In 2004, the domestic insurgency in the Deep South of Thailand flared up. Thaksin once more earned the wrath of human rights organisations with the way he handled the problems in Thailand’s southern provinces. In particular, Thaksin earned widespread condemnation for killings at Krue Se Mosque in Pattani and the Tak Bai incident.
Thaksin’s Fall from Power
Thaksin won a second term in office as Thai Rak Thai dominated the elections held in 2005. Despite having a popular mandate, there were a number of influential people who were concerned about the amount of power that Thaksin now had. At the start of 2006, the Shinawatra family sold their shares in the Shin Corp telecoms group. The family netted a reported 2 billion USD from the sale and avoided paying any tax when they sold to Singaporean investors. The sale caused uproar amongst those who opposed Thaksin. Street protests took place in Bangkok accusing Thaksin and his family of an abuse of power. In response, Thaksin called a snap election for April 2006. The main opposition parties boycotted the polls. Faced with more protests, Thaksin briefly stepped down from office only to return again in May 2006.
In September 2006, a bloodless military coup ousted Thaksin from office whilst he was abroad. Thaksin was accused of corruption and abuse of power. There were also accusations that Thaskin had been disrespectful to the monarchy and that he harboured ambitions to make Thailand a republic. Thaksin has always denied these allegations. Significantly, the military government which stepped into the political vacuum passed a new constitution which would later be used to pursue Thaksin. Later, in May 2007, a legal ruling resulted in Thaksin being banned from politics and Thai Rak Thai Party was also banned as a political party.
Pro Thaksin Support Remains Strong
Despite the accusations levelled against him, many of Thaksin’s supporters remained loyal to the man who was known as the ‘Big Boss’ and a new political party was formed to replace Thai Rak Thai. Although he was officially banned from politics, it is widely believed that Thaksin continued to pull the strings for the new People’s Power Party which won the election in December 2007. Amidst emotional scenes in February 2008, Thaksin returned to Thailand from his self-imposed exile.
The Rise of the Yellow Shirts
Anti-Thaksin groups began political protests in June 2008. Unhappy with the new Thai government which they accused of being a proxy for Thaksin, the street protests in Bangkok were led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who would become known as the yellow shirts.
In July 2008, Thaksin’s wife, Potjaman Shinawatra, was found guilty of tax evasion and the following month an arrest warrant was also issued for Thaksin. However, Thaksin never went to court after he failed to return to Thailand following a trip to the Beijing Olympics. Pressure increased on the government and the yellow shirts stormed government buildings in Bangkok in August. The protests spread outside the Thai capital to the transport network and regional airports in Krabi, Phuket and Hat Yai were targeted by the yellow shirts. Violent clashes erupted in Bangkok in September 2008 between the yellow shirts and security forces. In the same month the Thai prime minister, Samak, was sensationally disqualified from office. However, the man who took over from Samak as prime minister was Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Somchai.
In October 2008 more violence took place in Bangkok as pro- and anti-Thaksin groups clashed. Later that month, Thaksin was formally found guilty of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison in absentia. The anti-government protests continued and culminated in the yellow shirts paralysing Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok. In December 2008, a court ruling resulted in Prime Minister Somchai and the ruling party being disqualified from office.
The subsequent political machinations saw a number of politicians switching allegiances so that a new coalition government could be formed. The new prime minister of Thailand was the leader of the Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The Emergence of the Red Shirts
The yellow shirts were happy that a pro-Thaksin government was no longer in office. However, supporters of Thaksin had seen this as a failing of democracy. There was talk of a ‘silent coup’ and a ‘judicial coup’. Thaksin supporters pointed accusing fingers at the so-called ‘Bangkok elite’ who had traditionally been the power-brokers in Thai politics. Thaksin had been removed by a military coup and two subsequent pro-Thaksin leaders were removed by controversial court rulings. A new group, who quickly became known as the red shirts, entered the scene. Red shirt street protests began in earnest in February 2009. Violence once more returned to the streets of Bangkok in April 2009 as red shirts clashed with security forces. There was also trouble in Pattaya which was hosting a regional ASEAN summit.
Following the red shirt protests of April 2009, the movement became much quieter. However, it never went away and further rallies took place in Bangkok in June and September of 2009, but the next major rally would be in March 2010.
Thaksin’s Money and his Role with the Red Shirts
Although officially banned from politics, Thaksin continued to address the red shirt rallies via satellite phone-ins and video links. He was the figurehead of the red shirt movement and the majority of those taking to the streets at red shirt rallies wanted to see Thaksin return to Thailand.
In February 2010, the Thai Supreme Court seized part of Thaksin’s vast fortune. Some independent analysts believe that the red shirt rally that took place in March was orchestrated and funded by Thaksin in direct response to the court decision. Following the violent ending of the red shirt rally in Bangkok, the Thai government has been actively targeting the money trail and the funding of the red shirt rallies. Thaksin Shinawatra has been accused of terrorism for his alleged part in the violence, but Thaksin maintains that all of the charges against him are politically motivated.
The Future for Thaksin
Thaksin has shown that he cannot be underestimated. His opponents say he is a dangerous man who will stop at nothing to get his money back and return to power in Thailand. Under the current government, a return to Thailand would mean immediate arrest for Thaskin. Under Thai law, fresh elections must be held before the end of 2011. If a pro-Thaskin government is elected, then Thaksin may be able to return. If he does return to Thailand then opinions in the kingdom may become even more polarised than they are now. There are elements in the Thai police force and army who continue to be loyal to Thaksin and the political situation in Thailand is still a long way from being resolved. Thaksin will always have his supporters and he will always have his critics, but the future for Thailand goes beyond one man.
Photo from Wikimedia (used here under the Commons Agreement)