THAKSIN SHINAWATRA’S LATER YEARS IN POWER IN THAILAND

SUPPORT FOR THAKSIN

Thaksin has his power bases among the vote-rich north and northeast, His opponents him of manipulating the rural poor in those areas to entrench his power. The opposition draws strength from Bangkok's middle class and elite.

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, “In northern Thailand, Thaksin is worth defending for a basic reason: He made people here feel cared for, seen. In the past, Thai politicians had largely ignored the rural areas. But Thaksin became leader, and towns soon had paved roads and cheap medicine. “Farmers used to have to sell their buffaloes to go to the hospital” because of the cost of treatment, said Jakapong Sancum, a DJ who lives in Udon Thani. “Now they just pay 30 baht,” or $1. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post, March 1, 2014]

Supporters of Thaksin are now often referred to the Red Shirts—after the color of shirts they have worn at protests supporting Thaksin. They draw their ranks from the populous and impoverished masses in the countryside, who live mostly in northern and northeastern Thailand. After Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister in 2008 the “Red Shirts” became a major political force in Thai politics. On Thailand’s red white and blue flag, the red stands for nation, blue is for the monarchy and white is for Buddhism. The political pressure group at the heart of the Red Shirts is the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship or UDD.

Chang Noi wrote in The Nation: “The red movement has two main streams - hardcore Thaksin enthusiasts, and a broader audience that supports democracy and opposes military intervention in politics. Thaksin had won support in the Northeast and upper North among people who felt pandered to and empowered as never before. After the coup, they protested through community radio, and resisted military intimidation. [Source: Chang Noi, The Nation, May 4, 2009~]

Criticism of Thaksin

In 2004, Thaksin’s star lost some of its glimmer as his administration was charged with cronyism and lack of transparency and criticism mounted over his handling of the bird flut problem in Thailand.

Thaksin was accused of being an autocrat disguised as a democrat. He was accussed of disregarding human rights, muzzling the press and blurring the lines between private businesses and politics. The middle class and Bangkok elite were upset by his efforts to undermine the checks on his power and establish one-party rule. They also disliked his style of popularism which they saw as favoring of the rural poor at the expense of their interests, and which they said exacerbated class divisions.

Thaksin was condemned by Thai liberals and human rights activist for his authoritarian policies. Human-rights groups complained that during Thaksin-led crackdown on drugs in 2003 the due-process rights of suspects were denied and innocent people were killed. He was also criticized for the government's response to troubles in the Muslim South. In October of 2004, about 80 suspected militants held prisoner by the government died, most of them suffocated inside trucks. Thaksin apologized for the deaths, saying authorities had not handled the prisoners correctly. See Drugs and the Muslim South Under Thaksin Policies

In July 2005, King Bhumibol warned Thaksin not to abuse his power under the emergency laws imposed in dealing with the Muslim south. In a speech in December 2005, the king obliquely criticized Thaksin and Thaksin did not respond with the expected reverence. Thaksin reportedly courted Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Many Thais saw this as a move to gain influence in the elderly king’s waning years.

Many were critical of the way Thaksin used the media outlets he controlled to promote his government and agenda and the way he cracked down on media he didn’t control when they aired views he didn’t like. For example, he ordered shows critical of him broadcast by rival Sondhi Limthongkul on his television channel and launched libel suits against Sondhi. Who struck back by organizing anti-Thaksin allies that drew large crowds.

Thaksin, Money and Corruption

Thaksin was dogged by corruption and financial disclosure charges from the moment he took office. He was accused of having a conflict of interest between running the government and heading his business empire. When he became prime minister he and his wife were legally obligated to sell their shares in the Shin Corporation. Thaksin sold the shares to close relatives or associates, including 20.15 percent of the shares to his oldest daughter, 15.29 to his oldest son and 12.29 percent to the brother of his wife.

Thaksin officially declared assets of $17.7 million when he took office in 2001. His wife Potjaman was listed as having $244.7 million. At the time his family is believed to have considerably more than that. Even before he became prime minister Thaksin drew controversy. A week before the 2001 election he was charged with concealing assets from his telecommunications empire by transferring shares to relatives, his chauffeur, maid and others. At one point two of his domestic servants were among the top 10 shareholders in Thailand’s main stock exchange. An investigation after he became prime minister cleared him of these charges.

Early in his first term, Thaksin faced an investigation by Thailand's Corruption Commission. He was charged with failing to reveal all his wealth while he was a deputy prime minister in 1997 and giving Shin Corp. shares to his drivers and maids when he had to give up his stock. To follow Thai law aimed at preventing conflicts of interest, he gave stock in most of his companies to his son and teenage daughters. In the mid 2000s, according to the Wall Street Journal, Thaksin’s family controlled about 39 percent of Shin Corp. and the company's value orse and fell with Thaksin's approval ratings. Forbes magazine estimated that at that time Thaksin’s family’s wealth was around $1.9 billion.

After taking office in 2001 an anti-graft commission ruled Thaksin he had violated financial disclosure laws. He appealed and attempted to intimidate the judges by mustering up public support of his position and admitted he made an “honest mistake” in failing to declare millions handed over to his domestic staff. . His strategy seemed to work. In August 2001, he was acquitted of the charges against him by a Constitutional Court by a vote of 8-7. Had he lost he would have been forced to resign and would have been barred from politics in Thailand for five years. Many people saw the ruling as a set back for the rule of law and a capitulation in to public opinion since Thaksin had clearly broken the law.

Thaksin was accused of giving friends lucrative satellite and cell phone contracts; using government Air Force transport planes to fly friends to a birthday party; buying obsolete fighters from Russia to earn a kickback of $85 million; favoring construction firms in purchases of security scanners and the construction transportation links for Suvarbabhumi Airport; and trading stocks without paying taxes. One study found that 8 of the 10 largest conglomerates in Thailand were led by people in Thaksin’s cabinet. All this came from a man who repeatedly told parents to set a good example for their children and said he hated people who cheated other people and said such cheats did not love their country. At one point he even championed himself as a corruption fighter.

Thaksin-Owned Media When Thaksin was Prime Minister

When Thaksin was prime minister he was criticized for pressuring the government to give iTV a favorable decision in regard to fees payed to the state. At the time iTV was owned by Thaksin’s Shin corporation and was the only privately-run television station in Thailand. The station was supposed to pay an annual fee of 250 million baht. iTV wanted the fee reduced to 150 million baht a year.

iTV was meant to be free from state interference but was widely used by Thaksin as his public relations vehicle. The station was effective in reaching voters and getting the Thaksin message across before the elections won by Thaksin.

The Shin Corporation, then Thailand’s largest telecommunications company, was sold to a Singapore’s Temasek Holding for $1.9 billion in January 2006 without paying any taxes. Many Thais were outraged, with the move ultimately leading to Thaksin’s ouster. Temsasek obtained 49.6 percent of Shin by purchasing 1.49 billion shares for $1.25 each. Thaksin said, “The sale is mainly because my children want me to dedicate my efforts towards work without any concern on conflict of interest.”

In May 2006, the privileges given iTV in 2004 were rescinded. The station was required to return to it monthly news format and pay fines, taxes and interest of over $2 billion. Teetering near bankruptcy and indirectly owned by Temasek Holdings, the Singaporean government’s investment arm, the station was transformed into the Thai Public Broadcasting Service. There was some talk of turning it into an Asian BBC.

Thaksin Intimidation of the Media While he was Prime Minister

Thaksin didn’t like being criticized. He cracked down on media sources that were critical of him and his policies. He ordered investigations of critical journalists and media organizations and blamed the media for inaccurately reporting his war on drugs and exacerbating the problems with Muslim insurgents in the south. Thaksin was particularly sensitive about criticism of his handling of the unrest in the Muslim south. After a critical report on 131 Muslim deaths at the hand of security forces in southern Thailand, Thaksin said, “As a Thai-blooded person, I request that the press to stop reporting the news” The newspaper The Nation was known for its attacks on Thaksin that included a front-page cartoon that portrayed Thaksin with a Hitler-like mustache.

Thaksin used the government’s Anti-Money Laundering Office to intimidate reporters. Four foreign journalist were placed on a “watch list” of people seen as threat to the national security. Two Western journalists with the Far Eastern Economic Review were threatened with expulsion from the country and branded as threats to national security for writing an article about the rift Thaksin and King Bhumibol. The Review and the Economist—which also ran some critical articles—were banned . The Review journalist were allowed to remain in the country after their magazine formally apologized to the Thai government in regards to the article.

Thaksin threatened journalists with law suits with high damage payments. He was accused of withholding advertising money from companies he owned to media entities that were critical of him. The owner of the Siamrath Weekly admitted recalling and destroying 30,000 copies of one edition because it was too critical of Thaksin and his handling for the bird flu outbreak.

In March 2002, the Nation Multimedia Group said that it would stop covering Thai politics on its 24-hour cable network after its radio news program was shut down by the government. A popular political discussion show led by a political opponents that often criticized Thaksin yanked off of the state-run network.

In a press conference August 2005, Thaksin rated journalists on their questions by using a buzzer and signs he brought with him from a Japanese game show. Favorable questions received a positive sign with a red circle. Questions he didn’t like received a sign with cross and buzzer. The journalists felt disrespected, Thaksin said he was only having some fun.

In June 2006, Thaksin appeared in a reality show, Backstage Show, starring himself touring around some of the poorest parts of Thailand. Thaksin called the show an opportunity for the leader to meet the locals. In the show he was shown giving locals cash and promises of loans and efforts to tackle their problems. On the show Thaksin once slept in a tent. He was accompanied by 49 cameras and whisked around in a military helicopter. His critics called the show a cheap stunt to keep him in the news at the taxpayer’s expense.

In May 2005, Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “Thai Journalists Association (TJA) issued a strong statement criticising government hypocrisy, particularly the pledge made by Thaksin at the beginning of his second term that he would respect press freedom and democracy. The TJA is succinct in assessing that the government has failed to keep its promises and has instead been using every trick in the book to meddle with news reporting. The government has even threatened to pull out advertising and buy up shares in media companies. And then there are the expensive defamation lawsuits. The National Press Council of Thailand has also condemned the defamation laws that make criminals of journalists. These local and foreign evaluations of the Thai media have more or less been based on similar procedures. These groups have all examined the level of individual freedom and the legal, political and economic environments to determine the level of press freedom. And all have agreed that the Thaksin government’s interference in the media continues unabated and has already become a norm. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, May 9, 2005]

Elections in Thailand in 2005

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won elections in February 2005 by a landslide, securing 377 of 500 seats in parliament, and for the first time in its history Thailand formed a democratically elected one-party government. The opposition was divided, The opposition Democratic Party won just 97 seats, down from 128 seats. The voter turnout was around 70 percent, slightly better than 69 percent in the 2001 election. A total of 2,289 candidates from 20 parties participated. Of the 20 parties only five secured seats. There were the usual charges of fraud and corruption. By one count $260 million had been doled out to buy votes. Forty candidates were investigated for irregularities, which could have prompted repolling in some areas.

Thai Rak Thai won a 75 percent majority in the House of Representatives. It did surprisingly well in Bangkok, taking 32 of 37 parliamentary seats there, on top of 275 of 309 seats in its stronghold in middle, northern and northeastern Thailand. In the south-the Democratic Party’s stronghold, the TRT won only one of the 54 seats.

Thaksin Overwhelming Power After the Elections in 2005

For the first time in Thailand, a single party—the TRT—held an absolute majority in parliament. This gave Thaksin an unprecedented mandate and allowed him to form a one party government and avoid parliamentary censures. Thaksin insisted the mandate would not turn him into a dictator. His cabinet included a general who married a close friend of Thaksin’s wife as the powerful interior minister.

Thaksin cemented his position as the strongest civilian leader that Thailand ever had. He was first the Thai president to serve a full four year term and the first to win elections with such impressive numbers. The election took place just a few weeks after the tsunami, during which Thaksin was given high marks. The combination of his popularity with the rural poor and the momentum from his positive revues of the handling of the tsunami explain his landslide victory Thailand has a history of shaky coalitions and the occasional overthrow of democratically elected leaders by coups).

With such a broad mandate, and no need for a coalition partner hopes were high and Thaksin was expected to pursue education reform and to expand his credit program for rural areas into a program to create banks in his second term, But the good will and momentum quickly lost steam. By the summer of 2005 discontent with Thaksin’s autocratic style and violence in the Muslim was turning many Thais against Thaksin. In late 2005, anti-Thaksin rallies drew thousands. More than 40,000 people showed up at a downtown Bangkok park, accusing Thaksin and his government of corruption, abusing power, censorship and mishandling the Muslim insurgency.

Criticism of Thaksin Mounts After the 2005 Election

The Thai Rak Thai’s growing domination engendered deep concerns over Thaksin’s overwhelming power and influence. In particular, objections frequently were raised about his tendency to reorganize the government and to reshuffle the cabinet with his personal friends and family members. After coming to power, Thaksin instituted 12 cabinet shuffles, the most recent in August 2005. Public and parliamentary criticism of Thaksin’s regime eventually led to mass demonstrations in the latter months of 2005 and early 2006 and dissolution of parliament by Thaksin on February 24, 2006. Consequently, new elections were held on April 2, 2006. However, Thailand’s Constitutional Court invalidated the results after the opposition parties refused to compete against Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai.

In 2006 there were mass protests calling for Thaksin’s resignation over corruption issues. In January 2006, dozens were detained after a mob stormed Thaksin’s offices. In March 2006, 100,000 people, the largest protest group in 14 years, gathered outside the Government House, the prime minister home, putting heavy pressure on Thaksin to step down. The demonstrators included business leaders, students and middle class Thais.

The rallies became almost daily occurrences. Some went past midnight well into the night. They often had a street party atmosphere. Demonstrators swapped anti-Thaksin T-shirts, chanted slogans, moved to anti-Thaksin music and snacked on Thai sweets. Same called their movement a “Silk Revolution.” Thaksin dismissed the participants as a “mob”,” a “few worthless people.”

Thaksin’s selling of the Shin Corporation, his family conglomerate and Thailand’s largest telecommunications company, to a Singapore’s Temasek Holding for $1.9 billion in January 2006 without paying any taxes was the last straw. For many Thais Temsasek initially obtained 49.6 percent of Shin by purchasing 1.49 billion shares for $1.25 each and ended up, with Temasek, along with its partners, controlling 90 percent the company. The deal was configured such a way that Thaksin didn’t have to pay any tax on his gains. Thaksin said, “The sale is mainly because my children want me to dedicate my efforts towards work without any concerns on conflict of interest.” The same day the deal was announced, a law came into effect that raised the limit on overseas ownership in Thailand’s telecom companies to 49 percent from 25 percent.

Critics claimed insider trading took place and complained that national assets—including communications satellites—were sold to a foreign government. Among Shin’s assets were Thailand’s leading mobile phone operator, a satellite company, a low-cost airline and the television station iTV. Large street protest were held that opposed to deal and called for Thaksin to step down. Anger was also directed at Singapore. Protestors burned effigies of Singapore’s prime minister and carried placards saying, “Thailand Not For Sale, Get Out,” and called for a boycott of Singaporean goods.

Elections in Thailand in 2006

To defuse the street campaign against him Thaksin dissolved parliament in February 2006 and called a snap general election that was held in April 2006. Thaksin called the elections to defuse street protests. By then tens of thousands of people were showing up at demonstrations to protests Thaksin’s rule. In one demonstration thousands marched in front of the Singapore Embassy, with posters of Thaksin with a Hitler mustache, to protest tax-free $1.9 billion sale of the Shin Corporation.

Among Thaksin’s most dedicated supporters were a group of farmers from northern and northeastern Thailand that called themselves the Caravan of the Poor. They campaigned for him and formed rallies and acted like thugs and hooligans in showdowns with opposition groups. Thaksin sometimes appeared with the group driving a tractor.

Thaksin party won the 2006 election overwhelmingly but with fewer votes than it won in its landslide victory in 2005. The opposition boycotted the election, claiming they were not given adequate time to prepare. Thaksin’s party was unopposed in 168 or 400 constituencies and about 400 candidates were disqualified on fraud charges. Some 40 percent of voters, with many in the Bangkok area, wrote “abstain” on the ballots. The boycott was widespread that many seats were unfilled. According to Thai law for a new prime minister to be confirmed all the seat must be filled according to Thai elections laws.

Had it not boycotted the election the opposition would have won big in Bangkok and the south but lost the election due the strength of Thaksin’s party in the rest of the country. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The triumph of people power was due only to the fact it held hostage the upcoming national celebration marking the highly revered king’s 60th year on the throne. “

Chaos After Elections in Thailand in 2006

Thailand was left without a government. The political crisis was unresolved and worse than ever. Afterwards Thailand had no seated parliament and only a caretaker government under the prime minister. Street protests were held to get Thaksin to step down, Thaksin said he would not stay on in caretaker position.

Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: “Though Thaksin's party again won a big majority in parliament, the body could not legally convene because several dozen seats remained vacant. Two days after the election, the prime minister paid a private visit to the king at his beachfront Klaikangwon Palace to give notice he intended to step aside. During the royal audience, the king said little, commenting only that the political situation was confused, according to the Thai and resident Western sources. When Thaksin said he was planning to resign, the king simply nodded. But with the parliament still unable to meet, Thaksin was powerless to turn his formal duties over to a successor. A second round of voting failed to fill all the vacancies and end the stalemate. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, May 28, 2006]

Exasperated, the king spoke out on April 25, rebuking the ruling party, the opposition and the country's judges. In a television address the king called Thailand’s political situation a “mess” and put part of the blame on the opposition for boycotting the election. He said it was “impossible for a democratic election to have one party, one man” and suggested that courts could end the impasse by nullifying the vote and ordering new elections. Bhumibol said it would be unconstitutional for him to act on a "whim" and appoint a new prime minister. He bluntly told the judges to do their duty, "so that the country survives," or resign. It was the king’s first direct political intervention since 1992 and was advice that couldn’t be refused. [Ibid]

"If the judges don't annul the election, they'd be going against the king's wishes, and that's unthinkable in Thailand," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told the Washington Post . Within two weeks, the country's constitutional court ordered a new election. The court invalidated the vote on the grounds the election was undemocratic and unconstitutional. Judges met and came to this conclusion after a meeting with King Bhumibol in which he said he could not produce a solution to the crisis. The essence of the king's message to the Thai people, former prime minister Anand Panyarachun said, was, "Don't pass the buck to me. There is a mess. You've got to clean up the mess. Don't expect me to come and rescue you." Yet that's exactly what the king did.

After the Thai Elections in 2006

Large street protests let by Thai media firebrand Sondhi Limthongkul continued after the elections in 2006. The whole thing resembled the People’s Power movement in the Philippines and showed that democracy in Thailand was still immature and people didn’t have faith in democratic institutions. Thais heaved a sigh of relief when no major violence occurred. In the meantime, Thaksin wrote U.S. President George Bush a letter which said, “Key democratic institutions, such s elections and the observance of constitutional limitations of government, have been repeatedly undermined.”

In April 2006, before the final count from the election was complete, Thaksin abruptly announced he was going to take a break and turned over his job as prime minister to his close ally Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathus, a move many said was irresponsible and a slap in the face to the people that voted for him. He returned to his job as prime minister seven weeks later and immediately began making moves to quell unrest in southern Thailand. One critic with the democratic Party accused Thaksin of “playing with the country like a kid with a toy. One day he wants to be prime minister and the next day he doesn’t.”

In a speech in June marking his 60th year on the throne, King Bhumibol called for unity, but also called for clean government, widely read as a swipe at Thaksin corruption. Earlier after protesters demonstrated against Thaksin corruption and cronyism the king summoned Thaksin to his palace. Afterwards Thaksin said he would not run in th next election because, he said “this year is an auspicious year for the King, and I want all Thais to unite.” In July 2006, three election commissioners were sentenced to four years in prison for mishandling the parliament elections and allowing unqualified candidate st run for office. The commissioners were widely seen as allies of Thaksin. Three other poll commissioners were sentenced to two years in jail two months later.

Explosives Found in a Car Near Thaksin’s Residence

In July 2006, students submitted a petition with 79,000 signatures, calling from Thaksin’s impeachment. By then even Thaksin’s former astrologer and leading artists were telling him it was time to step down.

In August 2006, explosives were found near his home in the car of a military officer in what Thaksin said was a plot on his life. Many doubted this and said the event was staged to gain sympathy. The explosives were not wired to go off. The car was driven past Thaksin’s home several time but the device was not detonated. Afterwards, Thaksin, who was normally watched over by 12 bodyguards, was given an additional 30 security agent to protect him, Thaksin fired a general he held responsible for the event and hired an additional 10 bodyguards to watch his family.

The explosives-laden automobile, was operated by a former driver in the Internal Security Operations Command, near Thaksin's residence in Thonburi. Although critics accused Thaksin of fabricating the plot to boost his popularity in the upcoming general elections, five army officers were arrested for their role in the plot. Three of them were released after the military overthrew the Thaksin government in September.

Elections were called for in October 2006. Thaksin was ruled eligible to run again. He continued on as prime minister until September 2006, when military forces staged a successful coup and set up a military-controlled regime.

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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