Thaksin Shinawatra became the 23rd prime minister of Thailand in January 2001. A former policeman who became a telecommunications billionaire and then a populist politician, he was described by Times of London as the “most successful and the most divisive prime minister in Thai history.” He promised to bring prosperity to all Thais by using the same skills that made him a rich man. Compared with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who also made a fortune in communications and media and became leader of his country, Thaksin was the first Thai leader to be elected outright (he did this twice) without being forced to form a coalition to govern and was the first to serve out his term. But in the end he was also the first to be elected to a second term in a landslide only to be ousted in coup a little over a year later.
Thaksin Shinawatra (pronounced Chit-a-what) was the richest man in Thailand and the leader of the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai) Party. He is known for his ubiquitous smile and can-do attitude but didn’t take criticism well and was criticized for governing like a dictator. His popularity with the general public allowed him to cut through politics as usual and get away with much more than he otherwise could.
In January 2001, Thaksin’s Phak Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai Party) won an absolute majority in the House of Representatives—a remarkable feat in country used to weak parties and unwieldy coalition governments. Because of widespread allegations of illegal election practices, new polling took place in February in some constituencies. The Thai Rak Thai, having merged with another party by then, still won the absolute majority of seats.
Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “More than any other politician in Thai history, Thaksin delivered services and redistributed government wealth in rural areas. He instituted universal health care, pushed debt forgiveness for farmers and gave cash to every village in the country. Thaksin also delivered for himself, his family and his cronies. He used the power of the government to pad his fortune while allowing widespread human rights violations by security forces. During his "war on drugs," more than 2,000 people were killed in unexplained circumstances, according to Human Rights Watch. After he was removed from power in the coup, he was convicted of corruption and banned from politics. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, May 1, 2010]
Reuters reported: “Thaksin redrew the political map by courting rural voters in the north and northeast to gain an unbeatable electoral mandate that he then used to advance the interests of major companies, including his own. Thaksin-backed parties have convincingly won every general election since 2001. The traditional Bangkok elites---mainly the military, palace and bureaucracy---were threatened by his meteoric rise, viewing Thaksin as corrupt and his sister—the current Yingluck Shinawatra— as his proxy.
Chris Baje is the author of a book on Thaksin.
Thaksin’s Life and Business Career
The son of a Chinese immigrant from a family of silk merchants, Thaksin was born in Chiang Mai in 1949. He worked in the family business—a silk business that grew to embrace a bus line and movie theaters—with his father, Boonlert. He attended a police academy, finishing in the top of his class, and joined the Royal Thai Police in 1973 and was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1987. After finishing police school he earned a scholarship and studied criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University, earning a masters degree there in 1975. He earned a doctorate in the same subject as Sam Houston State University in Texas in 1978. For a while he taught at the Thai Police Cadet Academy. In 1982, he began supplying the police department with computer software in 1982.
In 1987, Thaksin left the police force to market a movie, Bann Sai Thong , and started a small computer dealership—the Shinawatra Company— with his wife that evolved into the Shin Corporation, a multi-billion-dollar, family-owned conglomerate. The company initially sold computer software and then expanded into pager services, cable television and data communications networks. Thaksin made a fortune after obtaining valuable satellite, cable television and mobile phone licenses. He launched Thailand’s first communication satellite and claimed iTV, Thailand’s only non-state television station, in a takeover he engineered in 2000. Thaksin’s company went public on the Bangkok Stock Exchange in 1990, the same year Thaksin made a successful bid for a 20-year deal with the Telephone Organization of Thailand.
iTV was founded in 1995. It was initially given a 30 year license on condition that it broadcasted largely news. It became part of the Shin Corporation—the Thaksin family conglomerate—when Shin bought a major stake in iTV. In 2004 iTV was allowed to pay lower annual fees and allowed to cut back on news and show more entertainment..
In 2005 Thaksin was ranked as one of Thailand’s four billionaires. At that time of Thaksin’s family assets were wrapped up the Shin Corporation, at that time Thailand’s largest telecommunications company, which embraced Thailand’s leading mobile phone operator, a satellite company, a low-cost airline and the television station iTV.
Thaksin made most of his money from mobile phones. As of 2006, Shin Corp, owned 43 percent of Advanced Info, Thailand largest cell phone company, two satellite companies (Shin Satellite and Ipstar), 40 percent of Loxinfoo, an Intent provider, and Yellow Pages services, and 53 percent of the broadcaster iTV. He also had stakes in other cell phone companies in Southeast Asia. The Shinawatra family came 10th on a 2013 Forbes list of Thailand's richest with a combined fortune of $1.7 billion.
Thaksin married his wife Potjaman in 1976. She is said have had a powerful influence on her husband. Thaksin and his wife reportedly regularly consult the fortuneteller, Varin Buaviralert. Thaksin got a divorce from Potjaman in November 2008 in Hong Kong. Many think that the divorce was carried out to protect Thaksin’s assets, many of which are in Potjaman’s name.
Thaksin has one son (Parthongtae) and two daughters (Praethongtarn and Pintongta). He transferred most his wealth to his son in 2000. On his 17-year-old daughter working at McDonald’s in Bangkok, Thaksin said, “I just want her to have the experience and to know about life, because she is the youngest child and when she was born her parents already had status.”
Thaksin’s Political Career
Thaksin entered politics in 1994, becoming minister of foreign affairs as part of the Palang Dharma Party. As foreign minister he repeatedly warned the government it was too dependent on foreign investment. He served briefly as deputy prime minister twice in the 1990s, in the governments of Banharn and Chavalit. In one stint as deputy prime minister he was in charge of traffic and transportation. His goal, he proclaimed, was to clean up politics in his country.
In 1998, Thaksin founded the Thai Rak Thai (TRT, Thai Love Thai) Party. The primary force behind the party was his personality. It quickly proved to be popular. Not long after it was started more than 100 parliament members defected from their former parties and joined Thai Rai Thai. The party’s slogan was “Think New, Act New.” Thaksin accused then prime minister Chuan Leepkapi of failing to improve the country’s economy and neglecting the poor.
Despite charges of corruption TRT quickly came to dominate Thai elections. Two weeks before he became prime minister Thaksin was charged with violating financial disclosure laws. He allegedly transferred $200 million worth of shares to his driver, maid and security guard and others to meet the terms of a 5 percent shareholding limit imposed on Cabinet ministers when he was deputy prime minister. He then failed to record the money on a financial disclosure form as he was obligated to do. He claims he made an honest mistake.
Elections in Thailand in 2001
The first-ever elections to the Senate were held in 2000. All candidates ran as independents, as they were forbidden from running on a party ticket.
In the January 2001 general elections there were 3,722 candidates for 400 parliament seats. In the months leading up to the 2001 election, 18 party rivals and campaign workers were killed in gangland-style shoot-outs. Many candidates carried good luck amulets and wore bullet-proof vests. There were also reports of voting stations being seized.
In the January 2001 election the Phak Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai Party) won an absolute majority in the House of Representatives. Thai Rai Thai took 255 seats; the Democratic Party, 128 seats; the New Aspiration Party, won 28 seats.
Because of widespread allegations of illegal election practices, new polling took place in February in some constituencies. The Thai Rak Thai, having merged with another party since the January election, still won the absolute majority of seats, but a coalition government—with the New Aspiration Party and Chat Thai—was established. The Thai Rak Thai was further strengthened in 2002 when it absorbed many members of the New Aspiration Party.
Thaksin Becomes Prime Minister
In January 2001, Thaksin became the Prime Minister of Thailand after his party—Phak Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai Party)—won the largest electoral win in Thai history and the first ever majority. He defeated the party of Prime Minister Chaun but after he was elected question were raised as whether or not he could serve because of the financial disclose charges he faced.
Thaksin won the election with populist appeal and promised of lavish spending to almost everyone in an effort to pick up the economy. He on promised loans to help the poor and health care for only 30 bhat (less than $1). In his campaign he was both nationalistic and critical of the "Bangkok elite." Businesspeople liked his company CEO leadership style. Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in Time Asia: "Thaksin is an effortless campaigner, his languorous walk, the gradual coming together of his palms in a Buddhist greeting, the soft grip of his handshake, all his movements coalesce to communicate equilibrium, an almost soothing presence." Thaksin’s critics accused him of using his vast wealth to buy voters. he was able to use his own satellite network to get his message out.
Even though he had a majority Thaksin formed a coalition with the Chart Thai Party and the New Aspiration Party, which gave Thaksin a 324 seat majority. Later the Serithan Party joined coalition. The total count of seats have him a three fifths majority, which allowed him to defeat censure motions by the opposition.
Thaksin as Prime Minister
Thaksin argued that corporate management delivered more results than bureaucracy. Acting like the CEO of a major corporation he made quick, firm, bold decisions, often on instinct. He purged bureaucrats that failed to follow his orders, including the governor of the Bank of Thailand and the reform-minded head of the armed forces, and surrounded himself with Yes-men, even in watchdog agencies and election commissions that were supposed to be independent and neutral.
Whereas previous governments had relied on fragile coalitions, since becoming prime minister in 2001, Thaksin steadily increased his parliamentary power by forging alliances with other parties and attracting members of other parties to his Thai Rak Thai Party (Thai Loves Thai Party). The Thai Rak Thai’s continuous success in national elections allowed it to assume a more dominant position in government and to dictate policy much more easily. Opposition parties, such as the Phak Prachathipat Party (Democratic Party), were greatly weakened, while coalition parties, such as the Phak Chat Thai Party (Thai Nation Party) and Pak Khwam Wang Mei (New Aspiration Party), were merged with the Thai Rak Thai. [Source: Library of Congress]
Thaksin worked vigorously to pursue his goals, using “loopholes” in the eyes of his critics, to undermine checks on the power of prime minister established in the 1997 constitution that aimed to make Thailand more democratic. Thaksin manipulated the charter’s provisions to increase his power and seized control of all of its checks and balances. In addition, Thaksin dominated parliament and the media and placed people loyal to him in high positions in the military. He insisted that taking such measures was necessary to tackle tough problems like drugs and unrest in the troubled Muslim south.
Thaksin’s critics was accused of being a strongman. Some began calling him “Field Marshall” Thaksin and said he refused to take criticism that goes with the job. For his part Thaksin repeatedly lashed out at the media for being unfair, unpatriotic and overly hostile. Those that opposed him directly were threatened sedition charges. Thaksin openly undermined the authority of Thailand’s judges. No less than King Bhumibol Adulyadej said, “the Prime Minister doesn’t like being criticized because it always irritates him.”
Thaksin, it was said, was obsessed with popular surveys of what people wanted and was also introducing new schemes and trying out new ideas. One income-generating idea was the Thailand Elite Card, a card obtained with a $27,000 fee that entitled holders to certain privileges such as fast-track immigration clearance and multiple entry visas within the first five years of its introduction.
Thaksin, redrew Thailand's political map by courting rural voters to win back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005, gained an unassailable mandate that he then used to advance the interests of some major companies, including his own. The Economist reported: “In office he did much good, spreading education, health care and political awareness among the poor, much to the annoyance of the establishment. But he was also autocratic and occasionally brutal, ordering an extrajudicial killing spree against drug pushers that killed many innocents. And like Silvio Berlusconi, he came increasingly to run the state for his own ends. His refusal to rein in his supporters during the bloody protests in 2010 was reprehensible. [Source: The Economist, November 9, 2013 ***]
Thaksin Comments, Dodgy Policies and Incidents
Thaksin angered women by saying sexual harassment in the work place was “a small problem that has been blown out of proportion.” Few women take harassment cases to court out of worries about the social backlash of their actions or fear of being labeled a sexual blackmailer.
Under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the media was pushed to support the government in return for economic rewards. Those that went against Thaksin did so at their own peril. They were targeted for intimidation, harassment, closure and censorship. After the Thaksin government was ousted in 2006, the military regime in power issued an order that demanded that the media abstain from reporting on Thaksin. Penalties included closure of the media outlet.
The two- and three-digit lotteries were launched by the Thaksin administration in the early 2000s. The military regime that ousted him ruled they were illegal and the games were scrapped in November 2006.
In March 2001, a Thai Airways Boeing 737-400 exploded, caught fire and was destroyed while sitting at a gate at Bangkok airport, 35 minutes before Thai Prime Minister Thaksin was scheduled to board the plane for a flight. One cabin crew member died and seven airline employees on the ground were injured. Some thought the explosion was caused by a bomb set by drug dealers with the intent of killing Thaksin. Later investigators concluded the explosion was caused by an exploding fuel tank ignited by an adjacent air conditioning unit that had kept running while the plane was on the ground.
Thaksin’s Domestic Policy
Thaksin was given a lot of credit for pushing innovative policies but he unveiled them at such a rapid pace that implementation was “shoddy and incomplete” one political analyst told the New York Times. Nepotism and croyism were also problems. Key positions in the national police force, for example, were filled with his former police academy classmates, some of whose credentials were less than stellar.
Thaksin’s populist polices redistributed wealth to the rural poor his primarily supporters, namely through cheap health care, credit and gifts of milk and rice. He initiated a three-year support program for farmers and provided low-interest loaned to poor villages, His policies made him popular with the poor who had felt ignored in the past. This angered the military, the elite, royalists, the middle class and people living in the Bangkok area who felt he was sacrificing future growth.
Thaksin launched aggressive campaigns to tackle Thailand’s problems. After taking office in February 2001, Thaksin said he was going to do something about Thailand’s drug problem. During the first wave of his antidrug campaign, which the government claimed eradicated 90 percent of Thailand’s drug problem, 2,275 people were killed in a three-month period ending in April 2003. In October 2004, the government launched a second antidrug campaign (See Drugs). As part of Thaksin’s “social evils” campaign go-go bars, street beer stalls and upscale pubs were forced to close at 2:00am. Both local people and foreign tourist were upset by the decision. Thaksin did little to tackle the AIDS problem in Thailand.
Another problem confronting the kingdom was terrorist violence, primarily in the south. In 2002 several police officers were killed, bombs were detonated when the minister of interior toured the violence-prone area, and five schools suffered damage from arsonists. The Thai military attributed these actions to a group thought to be an al Qaeda affiliate and arrested suspected members of Jemaah Islamiah (Community of Islam) in June 2003. They confessed to plotting attacks on embassies in Bangkok and tourist sites. Further arsons and bombings occurred, and attacks on police and army bases in 2004 heightened the terrorist threat. In 2004 alone, more than 500 people died as a result of insurgent and terrorist violence in the south. See Troubles in the Muslim South.
In December of 2004, in an unusual peace gesture to quell hostilities in the Muslim South, Thaksin ordered the Thai air force to drop millions of paper cranes on the southern provinces on the king of Thailand's birthday. The cranes were folded, origami-style, by troops, students, volunteers, and even Thaksin and his cabinet. Paper cranes are symbols of peace and hope in Japan. At the same time, however, Thaksin proposed tougher security laws such as the ability to tap phones without warrants and hold suspects without a charge for a week.
Thaksin tried to make the bureaucracy more efficient by eliminating red trade and making bureaucrats more responsive to his orders. He initiated policies that put a premium on doing things quickly with an emphasis evaluation and getting results. Under Thaksin, bureaucrats that failed to perform were purged or forced to resign while those that performed well were promoted just as they would be if they worked for a company.
In the early 2000s, Thaksin government passed a health initiative that allows any Thai citizen to see a doctor for 30 baht (75 cents), including services, tests and medications. The 30-baht initiative was one of populist policies instituted by Thaksin after he first took office bn 2001. Critics claim the policy has undermined the Thai health care system because local hospitals are not properly reimbursed. Many hospitals and clinics lowered their service in accordance with the fees. Many praise the program. For example, poor people who couldn’t get top quality health care before can now no ocul could cancer chemotherapy for under $1.
Thaksin’s Anti-Drug Crackdown
After taking office in February 2001, Prime Minister Shinawatra Thaksin said doing something about Thailand’s drug problem, particularly amphetamines, was a top priority. In an anti-drug crackdown that began in early 2003 about 2,300 people were killed. The Thai public overwhelmingly supported the crackdown. Newspapers ran grizzly pictures of the dead and reported the deaths of the drug dealers as if they were points for the home team.
Although the tough tactics were supported by many ordinary Thais they were condemned by human rights groups, who accused the Thailand government of carrying out an extra-judicial killing campaign. Thai officials responded by saying that most of the drugs dealers were gunned down by other criminals. Those that were killed by police, the officials insisted, were shot in self defense. Most of the deaths, they said, were attributed to intergang warfare carried out to eliminate rivals and informers. Critics of the campaign were accused of betrayal and siding with the drug dealers. Few journalists dared to investigate the deaths.
Before the crackdown, Thailand ran anti-drug slogans, hired pop stars to denounce drug use and launched an education campaign in schools with little positive results. Thaksin’s campaign set quotas for drug seizures, rewarding those who seized lots of pills and punishing those who fell short. Results had precedent over the rule of law. If some suspected drug dealers were killed in the process so much the better. Thaksin said, “They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace, Who cares? They are destroying our country.”
Million of drugs were seized. tens of thousands were arrested. By one count 285,186 drug users were reported to authorities. The overall impact of the campaign was a matter of debate. Many big dealers and those with political connections escaped unscathed and despite claims by the government that amphetamines use dropped by 90 percent and 70,000 people turned themselves in, amphetamines use remained high and continued to be a problem.
Killing During Anti-Drug Violence
Much of the dirty work during Thaksin’s anti-drug campaign was done by heavily-armed militias and vigilante groups recruited by the police and the government. Many victims were on secret but official “black lists” with 46,000 names. Some were killed by masked men after visiting police stations. Little effort was made track down the killers.
The black lists were drawn up quickly. There was pressure on police and the militias to act quickly. The police were told that if they acted slowly they would be punished. Some of alleged drug dealers were believed to be victims of score settling. Others got their name taken off the blacklist by paying a bribe. Others who surrendered to police and were let go were shot as they returned home.
Many bodies were disposed of without autopsies. Some had been shot execution style and had bags of drugs placed conspicuously at their sides. A typical killing involved the shooting of a man in a pick truck. It wasn’t uncommon for police or produce three bullet-riddled bodies and provide little information about who they were or what they had done. Supporting the police were newspaper reports like: 1) “Police believe they could have been murdered by another dealer;” 2) “Police believed the man was killed by professional hit men hired by drug dealers;” and 3) “Police think the killing might have resulted from a turf war involving the region’s drug gangs.” As names were ticked off the blacklist, police confiscated gold, gems, cash, 40 deer, 320 ostriches and 10,000 crocodiles in raids.
There reportedly was a “shoot to kill” order. A police general told the Nation that the campaign was a “shortcut to hell” for those who were killed. “I support the idea of setting up killer teams to terminate these people,” he aid, “provided that there is a law to support the actions against such people.”
Clearly, some innocent people were killed. In one case, a nine-year-old boy, the son of a suspected drug dealer, was caught in the cross fire of a police raid and killed. The boy was sitting in the back of a car while his father allegedly delivered 6,000 pills as informant police were watching. The boy was killed when the police opened fire on the vehicle when the boy’s mother drove away in the car. In another raid a one-year-old baby was killed.
Thaksin and the Death of 85 Muslim Protestors at Tak Bai in the Muslim South
Thaksin too a hard line against protesters in the Muslim areas of southern Thailand when things became violent down. His harsh tactis may have said only made things worse. In October 2004, during Ramadan, 85 Muslim protestors were killed after a crowd of about 1,500 gathered around a Tak Bai Police Station in Narathiwat Province, demanding the release of six villagers detained on suspicion of selling weapons to insurgents. The crowd could have been much larger but security forces took measures to keep people away. Thai officials said about 300 troops with assault weapons surrounded the protesters and said shots were fired at them from the crowd. A police chief said, “We had to use fire otherwise they might have ransacked the police station and set fire to it.”
Seven died and 20 were wounded as a result of wounds suffered during a violent clash in which security forces fired live rounds, tear gas and water cannons at rock-throwing Muslim protestors. One demonstrator told the Washington Post, “At the sound of shooting, everyone dropped to the ground.”
Later a total of 78 protestors died of suffocation while police custody. The victims—men exhausted from fasting during Ramadan and fighting with police—had their hands bound behind their backs and were forced to lie on top of one another in layers four- or five-people-high in the back of six-wheeled army trucks that were driven five hours to a detection center in Pattani Province. One survivor said the protestors were piled up “like bricks and stomped on by troops after the were piled up.” Some of the victims may have been gagged. A forensic expert said, “They may have had something stuffed in their mouths and nostrils.”
About 1,300 demonstrators were transported in the trucks. Reporters said no one saw them loaded on to the trucks but they did see them lying on the ground, stripped of their shirts with their hands bound behind their backs. Television news footage showed some of the detainees being forced to crawl to the trucks while troops kicked and hit them with rifle butts. A forensic doctor said that 80 percent died because they could not breath. “We found no wounds on their bodies...We didn’t find any bodies with broken arms or legs, but two or three of them had broken necks, which may have occurred during transportation.”
One witness told the Washington Post, the troops “brought them one by one and shoved them into the waiting army trucks like they were loading animals.” On man who was lying on top of one man with two other lying on top of him said, “Some people begged the soldiers, but the more you begged, the more they stepped on you.” He said soldiers taunted them, saying, “If you want to die, we can deliver that for you.” He also said he heard men gasping for air and having a plastic bags placed over their heads.
Response to the Death of 85 Muslim Protestors at Tak Bai
Somboon Bualand, a Pattani-based sociologist told the Washington Post, “I’m absolutely shocked, For people to die like this during Ramadan, in the Muslim fasting month, is tragic. Suffocating to death is...more violent than being shot to death. These people suffered greatly in dying.” In some cases relatives were not allowed to see the bodies, only identify victims by photos of their faces. The mother one victim told The Asia News Network, “There are no words to describe our feeling. We couldn’t even see his body of take him home...The government would not let us. They told us his body was three days old and already bloated. They burned them in a mass grave.” Some of those that were allowed retrieve the bodies found the victims covered with bruises and blood.”
No soldier or government official were charged with any crimes or punished in any way. The general in charge of the south was later transferred to Bangkok and promoted by Thaksin. Some demonstrators, on the other hand, were charged with crimes related to their involvement in the protests. Thaksin ordered and investigation and gave $250,000 in compensation to Muslim leaders. Families of the dead received $250 each. Hundreds of protesters continued to be detained even after deaths, Most were released within a couple of weeks.
Thaksin said, “The tragedy should not have occurred. It was mishandled. It was a mistake and since we did the wrong thing I admit to the mistake... The government still cares and is concerned for the Muslim people and what happened has nothing to do with religious discrimination...It was an accident during transport which happened because time and the situation were pressing. That was why they were crammed together,” He said all this after initially saying, “This is typical. It’s about bodies made weak from fasting. Nobody hurt them.”
Efforts by Thaksin to End the Violence in the Muslim South
After the attacks in southern Thailand in 2004, 10,000 troops were sent to the area, security forces launched a crackdown and martial law was declared in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces. Schools labeled as training grounds for religious extremis were shut down. Buddhist temples were guarded. Police gave monks security escorts. The Thai government bought seven U.S.-made attack helicopters and 24,000 guns to fight the insurgents paid for with a three-year special defense budget of $66.3 million.
Under Thaksin the government gave itself unprecedented emergency powers— never previously seen in Thai law—issued by decree by Thaksin. Under the “Emergency Power Law” of July 2005, which many said was harsher than martial law imposed by the military, civil rights were suspended and institutions designed to hear resident’s complaints were eliminated. The government was given the power to tap phones, monitor e-mails, confiscate property of suspects, put people under house arrest, order curfews, censor the press, halt the distributions of newspapers and magazines, grant immunity to security officials, and hold suspects for up to 30 days without charges. After Thaksin announced the Executive Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations (Emergency Power Law) King Bhumibol told him not to abuse his power.
Thaksin had previously at first withdrew military personnel from the area and blamed the attacks on bandits. Later he admitted the attacks were likely caused by Muslim separatist and sent more troops into the area. At that point Thaksin said, “We cannot allow these people to harass innocent people and authorities any longer. We have no choice but to use force to suppress them.”
Thaksin ignored calls for reconciliation and opted instead for a hardline approach. He tacitly allowed death squads and extrajudicial killings and refused to apologize for the death of the 85 Muslims at the hand of Thai security forces. He took power away from an army general who had been wining over Muslims in the area, saying he wasn’t cracking down hard enough, and instead gave more power to the notoriously corrupt police.
Under Thaksin there were arbitrary killings and arrests and commando-style raids of mosques and religious schools. Many law-abiding Muslim cried foul and said the crackdown and hardline approach only served to radicalize more Muslims and drive them into the arms of insurgents. In many ways the insurgents the heavy-handed methods as a way to increase their ranks and win supporters and sympathizers in the Muslim villages.
Thaksin’s Crackdown on Entertainment and Nightlife
In an effort to cut down on underage drinking, the government under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a vice crackdown in the early 2000s that involved closing bars at 2:00am and giving on the spot urine tests to minors. People in the entertainment and sex industry complained that the effort hurt business. In 2006, the government proposed increasing the drinking age and banning alcohol advertising, This was one of the first issues the post-coup government took up rather than establishing democracy.
Jamie James wrote in Conde Nast Traveler: “Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party took power in 2001 on a promise to wage war against narcotics and prostitution, which were spiraling out of control. The new government didn't make any subtle distinctions between sleaze and sophistication for a scary moment, it looked as though all the bars in Bangkok, a city of night owls, would close at midnight. Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and even staid Singapore were poised to overtake Bangkok as the region's fun city. But after some serious thought was given to the inevitable economic impact of such action, the backpedaling began. The campaign dealt a blow to established red-light districts; once notorious Patpong is now a dinosaur, frequented only by old-timers. Sex tourism has become an Internet-driven business. [Source: Jamie James, Conde Nast Traveler, March 2006]
“The night before I went to dine at Bed Supperclub, a popular Bangkok pleasure dome, the place was raided. Bed is that rarity, a gimmicky superhip club that has built up a loyal clientele and survived. From the outside, it looks like the mother ship in a 1950s flying-saucer movie, with a long ramp entering the belly of the craft. The all-white interior delivers what it promises: lines of wide beds upon which diners recline, in the decadent spirit of imperial Rome. Across from the ramp is the bar, which is usually packed with stylish young professionals wiggling and jiggling to the latest music.
That's where the bust took place. The cops arrived at 11:30, according to the club's general manager, Roger Chi. An enthusiastic, bright-eyed Californian with an MBA from Wharton, Chi expressed no rancor about the raid. "There must have been forty or fifty cops," he told me. "I was really impressed by their organization. I told the bartender to give them sodas." Two vans, partitioned with stalls, were parked out front, where customers were issued cups and ordered to produce urine samples. "Some of the customers were getting off on it," said Chi. "I heard them saying things like 'Only in Thailand!' It was a war story they could take home with them."
The police did a quick-and-dirty test on-site that came up with a few positives, but in the lab they all proved to be false. Bad police work, perhaps, but great TV: The night Bed was raided, news cameras from Thaksin-owned TV stations arrived simultaneously with the police, to capture dramatic images of the crackdown on dissolute urban youth?for consumption in the suburbs and up-country. Much of Thaksin's power flows directly from his dominance of the nation's electronic media. On television, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between news stories about the election and Thai Rak Thai ads, with Thaksin's dumpling-bland face on-screen every other time I looked up at the TV in a roadside noodle shop.
Thaksin’s Economic Domestic Policy
Thaksin promised to bring prosperity to Thailand by running it as a CEO does a large corporation. He stimulated the economy with populist programs, cheap credit and heavy government spending. to. He set up a national assets management company which took over many of the bad loans from banks. He cut taxes to induce spending, offered tax breaks to attract foreign investors and gave farmers above market prices for their crops. Some of Thaksin’s initiatives were more dubious. He once hurried off to a small town by helicopter in a futile effort to track down a horde of wartime gold reportedly left behind by the Japanese. He also regularly consulted a fortuneteller.
When Thaksin took office, Thailand was recovering from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s To prevent a 1997 bust from occurring again Thaksin imposed restrictions on foreign investors, prevented developers from borrowing money from banks to buy land and develop golf courses, and passed laws to control hot money and keep the stock market from overheating. In the past Thailand had relied on exports to countries such as the United States to keep its economy going, but it this was becoming more as the strength of the Chinese economy grew. Thaksin's focus on the countryside and the poor aimed to build a more self-sufficient economy, less dependent on the export market. He also prodded growth through deregulation and funded huge public works projects such as Bangkok’s new airport.
Thaksinomics came to mean a duel policy of promoting exports and foreign investment in Thailand while pushing economic self-reliance and increased consumption at home. Under his leadership Thailand privatized state-owned assets such as the country’s airports and the national oil company, things his predecessors said they were going to do put were unable to achieve.
Among Thaksin’s goals were making Thailand a "hub" of "value added" products. His plan involved utilizing Thailand’s geographic location at the crossroads of West and East Asia to become a regional and intercontinental hub for trade, industry and tourism. "Hub" and "value added" became buzzwords for Thailand drive to make into the ranks of the developed world. According to the New York Times: “Since Thailand, with 60 million people, lacks sufficiently cheap and abundant labor to compete with China, or the high-technology skills to compete with more industrialized economies like South Korea and Taiwan, Thaksin seeks to maximize the value of what his country can deliver in areas like lifestyle, ranging from food and handicrafts to boutique hotels and health spas.”
When the economic was growing in the early 2000s, energy was heavily subsidized. In 2004, when oil hit $50 a barrel, Thais spent about the same for diesel fuel as they when oil was cheaper because the government paid $5.5 million a day in subsides on oil. These measures helped Thaksin in the 2005 election but of course increased the national debt.
In 2005 Thaksin tried to prop up the economy by boosting consumer confidence and cutting fuel consumption. He introduced a stimulus package to try and achieve the former and cut subsidies on fuel prices to cut consumption of oil products. He also named Thanong Bidaya—best known as the man who decided to devalue the baht, triggering the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis—as finance minister again.
In June 2005, aimed to cut fuel consumption by reducing the hours gas stations could sell fuel and limiting the time bright billboards could keep their lights on. Subsidies on diesel fuel were phased out gradually There was even discussion of forcing television station to stop broadcasting after midnight.
Economy Under Thaksin
Thaksin’s populist programs of offering cheap credit and heavy government spending boosted the economy, which expanded 44 percent between 2001 and 2005. Growth rose from 2.2 percent in 2001 to nearly 7 percent in 2003, when the Bangkok stock market rose 87 percent, and 6.1 thousand in 2004 and 4.5 percent in 2005. Overseas investment nearly doubled between 2002 and 2005 On the downside average household debt rose 53 percent between 2001 and 2004
Unemployment was 1.5 percent in much of 2004, the lowest in Asia and compared to 9.9 percent in Indonesia. The number of poor dropped by 2 million between 2002 and 2004. In percentage terms, the poverty rate declined from 15.6 percent in 2002 to 12 percent in 2004 and to 9.8 percent in 2005, according to the World Bank. Economists said te increase was due more to economic growth than government policies.
There were some worries about bad loans. The government said bad loans were only 13 percent. Many thought this was understated, with the true figure around 24 percent. Even so Thailand’s large reserves allowed its credit rating to be raised. Many loans were rescheduled, especially those held by those with political connections, and allowed to go bad later. In 2004, Krung Thai Bank, Thailand’s second largest bank, was criticized for giving out loans for dubious projects and building up over $1 billion in non-performing loans.
Some accused Thaksin of allowing the kind of easy credit that paved the way for the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. Other said the growth that occurred during his years in power was not the result of his policies but rather was the outcome of the global recovery in the early 2000s. Other give him more credit saying his policies led to early repayment of the $3.4 billion IMF loan—given after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis—early, in 2003.
Growth in 2004 of 6.1 percent was achieved through strong domestic consumer demand and manufacturing exports despite a hike in oil prices. The economy shrunk 0.6 in the first quarter of 2005, the first quarter after the December 2004 tsunami, but reached 4.5 percent for the year thanks to a strong harvest and record exports. Growth improved at the end of 2005 as tourists began returning and sales of automobiles, rubber and computer parts increased.
Inflation rose to 4.5 percent and the trade deficit increased in 2005 as a result of higher oil prices. After Thaksin ended subsidies on fuel prices. Labor unions threatened to strike over the minimum wage which they said wasn’t enough to cover basic living costs.
Thaksin’s Help for the Poor
Thaksin quickly delivered on his promise of cheap health care. He also helped the rural poor with a $2 billion Village Fund that gave $25,000 each to Thailand's 77,000 villages and small towns to fund low-cost loans to villagers. Local committees were allowed to lend money to villagers as they saw fit. Villages that had success with the program were allowed to upgrade the fund to a minibank in which they took in savings as well as gave out loans. Money was also dished out for infrastructure projects like roads and irrigation systems A three-year moratorium froze $1.6 billion in farm debt.
Thaksin proposed granting certificates of assets, including real estate and other possessions, to villagers which they could use as collateral for bank loans. Some villagers were given $4,000 concrete homes for which they paid $13 a month. Others got grants for school uniforms and textbooks. One woman in the impoverished northeast who increased her income 10-fold by growing organic mushrooms with a soft loan from the government told AP, “He took care of us poor people first and foremost . Before there was no one who looked out us.”
Some of the money was wisely invested and put to good use in starting up and expanding small businesses. Some was treated like a cookie jar to pay off debts and buy stuff that otherwise would have been bought with money earned from working. There reports of local leaders lacking the business skills to properly manage the money and people using the money to buy cell phones in places that didn’t have signals. There were also worries that much of the growth was fueled by artificially low interest rates and poorly-thought-out public spending and this could fuel inflation and leave people badly indebted if interest rates rose. Some described Thaksin’s economic policies as the“Thaitanic”
Bright Ideas for the Economy Under Thaksin
Thaksin and his economic team had no shortage of bright ideas. Among them was setting clocks ahead one hour so that Thailand would be in the same time zone as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia and this would give financial markets a boost. There was also talk of using a treasure in cave to pay off the national debt (the cave turned out to be empty).
Under the one-village-one product campaign promoted by the government crafts and products produced on the local level were given a boost by government loans. The program, modeled after a similar program in Japan, was credited with starting a number of new businesses in rural areas that had traditionally been left out of economic growth.
The Thaksin government set up a job placement service to help high school students find work during their school vacations. Thaksin wanted to privatize the state electric utility. Some called his ideas “Thaksinomics. Michael Schuman of Time Asia wrote: “"Thaksin's policies have turned him into something of a popular hero, hailed by his fans as the decisive, no-nonsense leader who has lifted Thailand from the doldrums of the Asian financial crisis, restored Thai pride, and lavished cash on the forgotten backcountry.”
Improvements in the Thai Economy Under Thaksin
Thaksin’s economic policies helped the economy boom. Thailand registered growth rates of 5.2 percent in 2002 and 6.7 percent in 2003. Only China posted better numbers. The stock market took off, consumer spending soared. Middle class Thais lived it up at restaurants on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road. Poor farmers enjoyed good harvest, good prices for their crops and access to social services that they had before. Thailand's gross domestic soared jumped by 22 percent in the first four years Thaksin was in office, and incomes in the countryside increased even more.
Government spending by the Thaksin administration kicked off a recovery. Fed up with austerity plans, Thais began spending more. Export-led growth returned by increased demand from China. In 2003, the stock market grew as foreign investors returned in large numbers to Thailand, many taking advantage of low interest rates. The baht was strong and stable and the real estate market was resurrected. Thailand posted trade surpluses. Domestic consumption was robust as low interest rates spurred the sale of cars and other big ticket items. The central bank even allowed Thais to invest money outside the country.
Budget deficits were at manageable levels as tax revenues increased. Inflation was kept under control. The government was able to put in infrastructure projects that generated growth. The recovery was built on sound fundamentals so there were fewer fears of foreign capital flight and a collapse of the rel estate sector.
Thaksinomics stimulus jumped started the economic but left behind massive debts and failed to produce high value industries that will allow it to compete with China. Critics like Bloomerg’s William Pesek called Thaksinomics “old-fashion, debt-financed pump priming dressed as innovation” and warned that Thais were becoming debt-ridden and dependent on government handouts, but when Thaksin ran for another term in early 2005, the economy was continuing to grow and the middle class, originally skeptical of him, largely supported him.
Thaksin, the Tsunami and Bird Flu
Thaksin was criticized for his mishandling of the bird flu outbreak. During the bird flu crisis Thaksin made a note eating a lot of chicken dishes in public but was late in acknowledging that the disease was a problem in Thailand. In January 2004, Thaksin admitted that his government, fearing panic, had failed to alert people to a bird flu outbreak. Before the bird flu crisis Thaksin had an approval raining of 80 percent. His rating dropped during the crisis but rebounded during the great tsunami of 2004.
On December 26, 2004, a massive tsunami struck the Andaman coast of Thailand, killing more than 5,300 Thai and foreigners and leaving another 2,900 reported missing. Thaksin was given high marks for his leadership during that crisis. Thailand responded more quickly than other Asian nations, moving food and first-aid teams into coastal areas right away. Thaksin visited the resort areas hit by the tsunami several times in the days after the disaster, promising immediate relief for local residents and foreign tourists.
Thaksin arrived quickly on the scene of the devastated area, with ministers by his side, issuing orders and consoling survivors. Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post: “When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was making one of his many visits to the tsunami-devastated south, he stopped by a Buddhist temple in Takua Pa that had been turned into a morgue. He put on a powder blue surgical mask and rubber gloves to tour the grounds. He gave a spirited pep talk to volunteers who came to help. And he even stopped to help two French rescue workers who had just arrived in Thailand from Paris but were having a hard time finding anyone to take up their offer to help."Come with me!" he said in English, leading the two firemen by the arm and introducing them to a Thai Interior Ministry official. Then after a briefing from the country's top forensics expert, and an on-the-go news conference for a knot of journalists, he was off again by helicopter to the next ravaged site. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, January 9, 2005]
“That kind of frenetic, hands-on activism in the midst of one of the worst natural disaster in his country's history has earned Thaksin plaudits even from some of his critics. After what seemed an initially slow response to the disaster -- some foreign tourists and Thais said that no rescue vehicles or helicopters appeared for the first few hours after the waves slammed ashore -- Thaksin has taken personal charge of the recovery and relief effort, overseeing virtually all aspects of the operation like the corporate chief executive he once was. In the process, Thaksin may have cemented his standing as the favorite in national elections on Feb. 6. "Thaksin is going to ride the tsunami into a landslide victory," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University. "After the first week, the catastrophe has become an opportunity for him. [Ibid]
Thitinan said Thaksin's penchant for concentrating government power in his office, which many critics call authoritarianism, may have helped him coordinate the rescue and relief efforts, while his tight control of most of Thailand's media has allowed him to hold the limelight throughout the tsunami crisis. As a result, Thailand's response to the tsunami, compared with that of other governments in the region, has been a model of organization and efficiency, according to many analysts. "In general, I think the government did well," agreed Amara Pongsapich, dean of the political science department at Chulalongkorn. "I think the government responded quickly. And the opposition has had no chance to make an impact." [Ibid]
“It was Thaksin who on day two of the disaster announced to the nation the death of the grandson of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the tsunami. Thaksin has spoken daily of the casualty count, preparing Thais for the prospect that many missing may not be found. He has issued what are probably the most forceful calls for an Asian leader for establishment of a tsunami warning system. He has acted as cheerleader-in-chief for the tourist resort of Phuket, promising residents and business owners that he would move quickly to make the island "even better than it was before." [Ibid]
Thaksin defused what initially seemed like a potential embarrassment, if not an outright scandal. In the first days after the tsunami hit, the Nation newspaper reported that the government's meteorological department received notice that a strong earthquake had hit Sumatra, and knew of the possibility of the waves but failed to issue an alert, possibly for fear of disrupting the peak tourism season. But the potential scandal appeared to subside when Thaksin became the main figure demanding publicly to know why no alert was given, and then set up a new top-level panel to develop a tsunami early warning system. This week, he temporarily removed the head of the weather bureau pending an investigation into why his department failed to issue a warning. [Ibid]
A month or so after the tsunami, the Thai Cabinet approved a $1.79 billion relief bill for victims of the tsunami. Most of the money was in the form of soft loans to help businesses recover. Some of the money was in the form of grants to people who lost relatives and property in the disaster. About 70 percent of damaged areas in the three worst hit provinces were rebuilt three months after the tsunami. The Thai government turned down a $20 million aid offer from Japan, saying he Japanese government should offer the money to recipients countries more in need. Thaksin promised the construction of an early-warning system for future tsunamis.
Thaksin’s Foreign Policy
After Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, and Singaporean President Goh Chok Tong Goh left office, Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promoted himself as the leader and senior statesman of Southeast Asia. He hosted U.S. President George Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a an APEC (Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum meeting in Bangkok in October 2003. Before the meeting 3,000 stray dogs were rounded up and shipped to the countryside, 10,000 homeless people were sent to army camps and 600 Cambodian beggars were airlifted in C-130 transports back to Cambodia. Around 500 human right activists were barred from entering the country. .
Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: When Thaksin “came to power in early 2001, the country's economy and diplomacy were quickly transformed and based almost entirely on his idiosyncratic leadership. He envisaged Thailand as a key regional player and did all the public relations stunts himself. The overly ambitious Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) was launched with fanfare shortly after. This new pan-Asia talk-shop covers more than half the world's population from the east of Suez to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Thaksin viewed himself as a new Asian leader not the ASEAN one, who could unite Asia and its strength. Apparently, he overlooked ASEAN at his own peril. But within ASEAN he still managed to forge close ties with the leaders of Singapore and Cambodia. As Thailand's international image inflated out of proportion, Thaksin prematurely declared in 2003 a Thai candidate to compete for the UN top post to succeed Kofi Annan. He saw the move as a way to shore up the country's international profile and his leadership. The failed attempt cost Thai tax-payers tonnes of money, coupled with unfulfilled diplomatic commitments pledged around the world. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, September 14, 2009]
A major theme of Thaksin’s foreign policy was that Thais should look to themselves first for help and meet their own needs rather than pander to the interest of foreigners. Thaksin wooed China. He was called a “friend” by the United States but also criticized by the U.S. for human rights violations and his handling of unrest in the Muslim south.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014