In The News

In Thailand: Thaksin — Thinking 5 Minutes Ahead of Everyone Else

March 5, 2008

On February 28th, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Bangkok after being deposed by a military coup on September 19, 2006. He was greeted warmly and enthusiastically by thousands of his supporters. Upon his arrival, Mr. Thaksin was taken to the Supreme Court to face arrest warrant and was quickly bailed, and then taken to the Office of the Attorney General to face a different arrest warrant (and bailed again). Mr. Thaksin’s trial with the Supreme Court is set to resume on March 12th; no court date has been set yet with the Attorney General warrant. From the onset, the former prime minister has proclaimed his innocence.

Less than one year ago, the political party Mr. Thaksin led, the “Thai Rak Thai” (Thais Love Thais or TRT) was disbanded after being found guilty by the Constitutional Court of committing electoral fraud on a wide scale. Mr. Thaksin and 110 TRT members have been banned for five years from participating in electoral politics. This decision was looked upon derisively by Thaksin’s supporters and seen as a retributive act by the military. Mr. Thaksin says he just wants to be an odinary citizen and no longer wants to be involved in politics. Should he be believed?

The last word supporters and detractors would use to describe Mr. Thaksin is “ordinary.” He is a billionaire and Thailand’s wealthiest person. Whether one agreed with him or not, Mr. Thaksin was the first Thai politician to ever honor his campaign promises. He also seemed to be the first politician to care about the poor, as his populist agenda endeared him to rural voters, the base of his constituency.

Although Mr. Thaksin may never run for elected office again, this does not mean the former prime minister has lost his appetite for power. Quite the contrary. Mr. Thaksin is believed to be providing the financial support for the People’s Power Party (PPP), the party with the largest number of seats in the government’s six-party coalition. Many in the PPP are former members of the disbanded TRT. Cabinet members went to Hong Kong to consult with Mr. Thaksin before being appointed, including Mr. Thaksin’s brother-in-law, Education Minister Somchai Wongawat. The Foreign Minister, Noppadol Pattana, is Mr. Thaksin’s former lawyer. The Finance Minister is a medical doctor whose background as being Mr. Thaksin’s former spokesperson seems to count more heavily than any economic and financial acumen he might possess. Prime Miniter Samak Sundarajev sheepishly admitted that the image of the government was looking “a little ugly” after naming the cabinet.

All of this comes at a time when Thailand is in economic doldrums. Foreign investment in Thailand lags behind that of its Asian peers. One must question whether the government possibly spending 500 billion baht on mega-projects is a sound way to stimulate the economy when central government revenues in 2007 totaled 1.5 trillion baht.

As one astute observer of Thailand’s political scene once told me: “Thaksin thinks five minutes ahead of everyone else in Thailand.” His arrival back in Thailand has out-manouevered the country’s military, bureaucracy, and other traditional elites. Who needs a ban lifted in order to run for political office when one can be the puppet master pulling the government’s strings? It allows one to wield power from behind the scenes without having to be held accountable to a nation’s populace. Something far from “ordinary.”

John J. Brandon is Director of The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs.

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