Gone but not Forgotten: Thaksin Shinawatra and the Roots of the Thai Protests

Thaksin Shinawatra, international man of mystery. Rock on, Thaksin. Rock on.

Thaksin Shinawatra, international man of mystery. Rock on, Thaksin. Rock on.

Last time I promised my small but beloved group of regular readers the tantalizingly tepid enticement of my own amateur rundown of the roots of the modern Thai protests, and today – as usual, a solid 50% later than I intended – that promise shall be delivered. Let us waste no time, then, in our pursuit of well-intentioned mediocrity.

Perhaps the most immediately perplexing thing about the situation in Thailand from an outsider’s perspective is that it revolves around a man who is not currently in Thailand, is not likely to be in Thailand in the near future, and has not lived in Thailand for well over half a decade. This man is Thaksin Shinawatra and he, despite his absence, is the most polarizing figure in Thai politics. In order to understand the Thai crisis, we must first seek to understand the conflicting opinions regarding this man of so many syllables.

Thaksin Shinawatra, businessman, politician, tongue twister and now political “refugee,” may perhaps be best characterized in a single word as a “founder” (though his opponents would likely choose another word starting with the same letter). He founded two things for which he has been made famous: a cell phone company called Advanced Info Service (AIS), and later a political party called Thai Rak Thai. Though none of this happened overnight, I have neither the time nor the desire to track the man’s entire career. Suffice it to say that by 2001 AIS was the most successful communications company, and Thai Rak Thai the most successful political party, in Thailand. The company earned him billions. The party earned him the prime ministership.

One cannot be a multi-billionaire or a prime minister and not court controversy. Put them together and you have a muckraker’s wet dream. When you own a multi-billion dollar company in a country and then go on to become that country’s executive leader, conflicts of interest are not merely probable; they are unavoidable. And when you combine these two things with a hands-on approach to politics that shifts focus from groups accustomed to plenty of governmental attention to groups that are not, this unavoidable controversy is likely to take on dramatic and possibly violent colors (yellow and red, in this case).

Both proved to be the case between Thaksin’s (it is customary for Thais to be referred to by their given name, even in formal speech) popular election in 2001 and the military coup that ended his rule in 2006.

Thaksin’s policies were ambitious and extensive across the board. There is not space enough in this post for – nor am I familiar enough with Thai politics to attempt at a comprehensive summary of – the complete agenda the Thaksin government pursued. However, at least a basic understanding of their scope and nature is essential in understanding the current crisis, so here is a summary and brief analysis of the basic tenets of Thaksin’s policies in office.

Most notable of Thaksin’s policies were (1) his attempt to implement a universal health care system, (2) the granting of extensive financial assistance to farmers in the rural northeast (mainly at the expense of the comparatively more prosperous urban south), (3) a harsh crackdown on drugs, (4) an aggressive attempt to decentralize and modernize Thailand’s education system, and (5) free trade agreements with multiple nations including the US, India, China and others. All of these policies met with some mix of success and failure, though the proportions belonging to each category will vary widely depending on whom you consult.

On the social front, the universal health care endeavor was massively expensive, marginally effective (though opinions vary wildly) and caused many doctors to defect into other, more lucrative trades. Nevertheless, the one thing all parties can agree on is that it did manage to greatly reducing the extent of HIV/AIDS in Thailand and extended coverage to many in poor and remote areas. Though as with many of these issues it is impossible for an outsider to say with certainty, one gets the sense that an enormous increase of access to health care was granted – especially, as with most of Thaksin’s policies, for the poor and isolated – but that the program required enormous government layouts and that the quality of treatment was not consistent or dependable.

Educational reform was apparently also a mixed bag. As with health care, the program caused the government to incur large debts while democratizing a public institution. Increased public funding made it possible for a greater number of less fortunate Thais to attend high school and gain funds for college, but at the expense of a progressive tax system that, just like health care, essentially meant citizens from affluent sections of Thailand (mainly Bangkok and the south) were funding social programs for the poor and rural north/northeast.

Changes were not just monetary but also qualitative. Emphasis was placed on replacing old test-based assessment methods – ever the scourge of effective education systems – with a more holistic approach. Anecdotal as it may be, as a teacher in east Asia for three years in the most test-centric system in the entire world, I can only say that if Thailand’s education system was even partially influenced by the same Sino-Confucian ideologies as Korea’s, the test-centric model was one well in need of changing.

In a theme that will persist as we go through Thaksin’s policies, the health care and education programs showed similar patterns: egalitarian, populist policies put in place by a strong government, spawning contention over the costliness and difficulties of the programs’ institution. The “strong government” part will be a focus of my next post, but for now I’ll just clarify that the term is not meant to imply an authoritarian regime but one enjoying the broad mandate of convincingly won elections as would the Republicans if, for example, they won the presidency and 68% of the seats in the house and senate.

If the politically dominant Thai Rak Thai party’s social efforts were controversial, the flag of contention was also flown prominently by their economics team.

Free trade agreements are notoriously sensitive issues in any country, but when your leader is a multi-billionaire communications mogul, “sensitive” becomes rather an understatement. And free trade agreements were a major feature of “Thaksinomics.” Naturally, Thaksin’s mega-businessman status occasioned suspicion of self-interested behavior in signing the many FTA’s that went through during his tenure (though his company’s profits actually grew at a significantly slower rate than the rest of the booming economy after the FTA’s were put in place, which may vindicate him in terms of policy if not necessarily altruism1).

His proactive governmental stimulus programs, which included the extension of microcredit and low-interest loans to the rural poor in Thailand’s northeast – who constitute a majority in terms of overall Thai population but before the Thaksin prime ministership were virtually ignored politically – were also the subject of much debate.

This is a key point, because this newly mobilized rural poor was the driving force behind the Thai Rak Thai’s political success and the rift between them and the urban south continues to be central to the unrest today. By all indications, at the heart of the Thai disturbance are Thaksin’s and Thaksin-esque government-imposed redistribution programs using tax dollars from the comparatively affluent centers of Thailand to subsidize agriculture and social programs for the rural northeast. Again, this will be gone into in more depth in the next post (which at this point is inheriting more responsibility than generation Y’ers faced with the Baby Boomers’ social security bill. Thanks for being so “productive,” post-war generation. Don’t do us any more favors).

In terms of the bottom line, Thaksin’s proactive economic policies seem to have been a clear success, with Thailand’s GDP growing a whopping 69% in his five years as prime minister and a sizable governmental budget deficit becoming a substantial surplus in that time. However, any seasoned progressive will note that this says nothing about advances in quality of life, and I have quite simply no knowledge of how Thais fared on this front (which in fact depends largely on who is right about the efficacy of Thaksin’s education and health care programs).

There has also been long-standing contention among economic critics that oftentimes Keynsian-style government intervention in the marketplace leads to short-term growth but long-term stagflation. Many Thais – again, notably from Bangkok and the south – cited these same arguments in opposing Thaksin’s policies, and the customary set of tired arguments between hands-on and laissez-faire economists may be safely assumed to have followed with its usual proliferation of platitudes and dead ends.

Two more policies deserve mentioning. The first of these was Thailand’s iteration of the “War on Drugs,” a term Americans who lived through the latter years of the 21st century will shudder to be reminded of.

However, the Thai version differed significantly from the American in two respects. First, there is no indication that it merely resulted in the perpetuation of pre-existing racial inequalities and the amplification of already rampant jail overpopulation by an influx of petty offenders and tawdry narcotics merchants. Second, it showed actual – and brutal – results.

In the first three months after the drug crackdown was initiated in Thailand, approximately 2,500 people had been killed in deaths that never seem to be more lucidly defined than as “drug trade-related.” Many of these murders were apparently caused by drug organizations themselves in an effort to keep members from betraying cartels in light of the new policies, but the violence surrounding Thaksin’s drug policy has always been a source of tension in Thailand and the international community.

Most prominent among the causes of this tension have been the claims Thaksin’s opponents and some outside sources have often made that many of these deaths were extrajudicial (performed without due process of law) killings doled out with the tacit sanction by the Thaksin government. However – in another theme that will prove common – a probe conducted by political opponent Abhisit Vejjajiva during Thaksin’s exile found no proof of these claims. And if a political opponent backed by a military junta with every interest in and opportunity of finding incriminating evidence cannot manage to muster it, we ought to view their claims in a very skeptical light.2

The last of Thaksin’s controversial policies was his handling of turmoil-filled southern Thailand, the extreme tip of which borders the neighboring Muslim nation of Malaysia. While much of Thailand is traditionally Buddhist, its southernmost regions, like Malaysia, are largely Muslim and include many citizens who are themselves ethnically Malay. In recent years these southernmost provinces have seen the rise of insurgents against Thai rule, since most of Thailand’s governmental policies have historically derived from a people whose traditions and beliefs have been overwhelmingly Buddhist for millennia.

The extent to which these insurgents enjoy popular support within even their own regions is unclear, though it appears to be a substantial minority given that 87% of the citizens of those regions voted in 2007 to support continued adherence to Thailand’s national constitution. A militant minority may be active in the southern tip of Thailand, as in many other places in the world. But it is nowhere near the kind of full-force movement toward national self-determination we have seen in places like Kurdistan and South Sudan.

Still, be these groups as marginal as they may, during the Thaksin administration several ugly incidents occurred involving the insurgents in which demonstrations and uprisings were put down with unceremonious force. Particularly brutal was the Tak Bai crackdown in October of 2004, when 84 Muslim demonstrators were killed by the Thai army. The event was made all the more grisly by the nature of the deaths, which were attributed to suffocation, heat stroke and other conditions arising from detainees being tied up and stacked like logs on top of one another in the backs of army trucks and left for hours on end in the oppressive Thai heat .

Though the extent to which Thaksin himself sanctioned this brutality remains uncertain, the willingness with which his regime used the military and police to assert control over the southern regions, combined with the bloody aftermath of his drug policy, paint the picture of a man who, while being far from a despot, was not averse to using force – though, importantly, he would never use this force to stifle the public protests that would come at the end of his tenure.

It bears repeating after this holistic summary that during his prime ministership Thaksin remained one of the richest men in Thailand and, if history is any indication, was likely not made poorer by his presidency (until, of course, his assets were frozen by the military after his ouster). Given Thailand’s rife tradition of corruption and money politics – which is almost impressive in its decadence – worries over nepotism and use of his position to accumulate wealth were inevitable and entirely prudent.

These compounding – and diligently fostered by the political opposition – worries came to a head in 2006, when Thaksin’s family sold their majority shares in Shin Corp., the family’s communications conglomerate, to investors mainly stationed in Singapore, netting themselves a cool $1.9 billion in the process. This sale would turn out to be the first domino in a sequence that would eventually end up toppling the entire Thai Rak Thai party, so it is worth examining in some detail.

Dealings in mega-business are seldom transparent. Those surrounding powerful political figures with powerful enemies are even less so. It is impossible as a non-prescient casual dabbler in world politics to divine the extent of political-economic motives behind the Shinawatra family’s decision to sell these assets. However, given that the sale allowed the Shinawatras to use an exemption on capital gains tax to make this $1.9 billion deal completely tax free – i.e. none of it going to the army of faithful have-nots that had voted him into office – it seems irresponsibly naive for us to ignore that such an act, if not explicitly corrupt, is at the very least scurrilous and hypocritical. A man who based much of his campaign on programs to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor might have thought to let some small percentage of his $1.9 billion contribute to the benevolent funding system we disparagingly call “tax.”

The sequence of events that followed houses layers of complexity, but I shall try to navigate them without being caught up in too many cross-currents.

Thaksin’s opponents, whether in genuine rage or just common political opportunism, jumped on the Shinawatras’ sale of their Shin Corp. shares with admirable immediacy, painting them as cronies, phonies and betrayers of the kingdom (yes, Thais are still very much fond of their powerless king, which will eventually complicate things even further).

A campaign erupted in the press, condemning Thaksin for every conceivable crime from corruption to nepotism to human rights abuses to “disrespecting the monarch” – a deathly serious offense in Thailand, puzzling as this may be in a representative state – to having plots to become a dictator.

Not for the first time, investigations were launched into Thaksin’s financial affairs and came up empty. The Shin Corp. sale, if not morally laudable, was at least unassailable in the unblinking eyes of the law. His resourceful political opponents tried other avenues. Several attempts were made to impeach Thaksin on grounds related to lese Majeste, or disrespecting the crown, but to no avail. The enemies of Thai Rak Thai continued to pull out their hair at an unsustainable rate.

Despite the affluent prime minister’s apparent compliance with the law and the alternately spurious and sometimes downright absurd claims of the Thaksin opposition (especially memorable were several long-wind excoriations by a crazed monk and the bizarre claim by one of his political adversaries that he had used black magic to persuade a mental patient to smash a Buddha statue into pieces in an elaborate scheme to gain dark powers), Thaksin rode out these trials unscathed. Neither the courts nor the legislature found compelling evidence of foul play, though the latter revelation is probably not surprising considering the Thai Rak Thai party enjoyed a substantial majority in the country’s representative branch.

Yet the public protests that had erupted in the streets of Bangkok at the revelation of the Shin Corp. sale continued unabated, fueled mainly by the truculent minority party in the legislature and aided by several of Thaksin’s business enemies as well as middle- to upper-class citizens of Bangkok and the south, who had labeled him a demagogue from the start and always detested his populist bent that saw their taxes increase and get shipped off to the northeast for Thaksin’s aggressive redistributive policies.

In light of the seemingly interminable demonstrations, Thaksin called for early elections. If the people were discontented with his rule, so he said, they could vote him out of office.

This seems something of a magnanimous gesture for a person accused of conspiring to establish a dictatorship. If you respond with the world-watcher’s cynicism that Thaksin might have felt comfortable doing so only because he was sure he’d win the election, I in turn will say, “Yes. And?”

Unpalatable as the results may be to those of us holding minority political opinions, the ballot box, fairly applied, is the basic tool of democracy. Thai elections are not counted among the world elections labeled “dubious” or “suspect.” They really do represent the actual voice of the majority. So if Thaksin was willing to submit to an early election, even if it was only because he was confident of the result, I do not see how we can object. The voice of the people is the voice of the people no matter if the voice says what everyone expected it to say all along or not.

However, as the dignified senators and congressmen of the United States have known for centuries, there are all sorts of ways of getting what you want in a democracy even if you don’t have the luxury of a public mandate behind you. Our senators use the toddler-esque tool of filibuster, but Thaksin’s opponents were sophisticated democratic scholars in their own rite. They realized that a democratic election is only legitimate to the extent that the public can actually be said to have participated. If, however, massive tracts of the populace refuse to participate, it cannot be confidently asserted that the public has made its will clear. By mass non-participation, therefore, the outcome of a vote will inevitably be thrown into question.

So the Thai Rak Thai’s opponents, frustrated in all their other attempts to thwart the popular party’s policies, boycotted the elections. The candidates themselves resigned from office and refused to run for re-election, and they encouraged their followers not to vote. They publicly announced that they would not acknowledge the legitimacy of such deliberately undermanned elections and demanded that, in lieu of a popularly elected legislature, a governing committee should be established by royal appointment – never mind the fact that no legal scholar, including the venerated king of Thailand himself, considered this a prudent move for a liberal state to make.

Even after Thaksin proposed to step down as prime minister – despite having convincingly won a majority even assuming all non-votes as anti-Thaksin votes – the opposition refused to concede. The message was clear: If democracy chose Thaksin Shinawatra, then, in the minds of Thai Rak Thai’s political opponents and the citizens of Bangkok and the south, democracy was not good enough.

Faced with this seemingly intractable situation, Thaksin, having taken a brief hiatus, resumed his post in May of 2006. Nevertheless, the situation in Thailand continued to be touch-and-go, and was characterized by public demonstrations and occasional bursts of violence. Finally, on September 19th, 2006, during a visit by Thaksin to the United Nations General Assembly, the Thai military staged a coup d’etat and abolished the Thai Rak Thai party by force.

Wrapping things up quickly. Thaksin briefly returned to Thailand, but a rejuvenated case against him on the grounds of corruption surrounding his 2006 stock share sales – once again sponsored by political opponents who this time enjoyed a seat in power backed by the always-active Thai military – found him guilty. Unwilling to submit to prison and possessing the luxury enjoyed by billionaires for time immemorial of always having a gold-plated Plan B, he fled the country and has lived in self-imposed – and probably very comfortable – exile ever since.

This is, as has been said, a concise summary of the Thaksin regime and makes no pretensions of being complete or comprehensive. I have tried to include all the essentials and build the foundation for a greater analysis of the Thai situation as a whole, but I will likely have failed on several fronts. Still, I trust some sort of workable foundation has been lain.

Though on re-read I do not think it is incredibly one-sided, when I first wrote this piece I felt I might have erred on the side of leniency toward Thaksin. If my first reading was more correct (i.e. if the vodka-tonic is doing more work on me than the as-yet lucid recesses at the backs of my eyes are reporting), I’d like to include a brief explanation of why I may appear to have been a bit extra-sympathetic toward Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai party.

First, I always try to operate under the assumption of innocence in the absence of convincing evidence of guilt. Throughout all my readings of disparate sources, I consistently found evidence against Thaksin in the cases of drug violence, corruption, conspiracies, and so on to have been incredibly spurious and unsubstantial when not offered by parties with a blatant political interest in obtaining a conviction. Since I consider convictions enacted by political enemies, ceteris paribus, to be tantamount to no evidence at all, I have tended to be careful and not assume any guilt not fairly proven.

Second, billionaire or no, the great majority of Thai people elected Thaksin repeatedly in fair elections. What is more, the force that finally did overthrow him was a military coup sponsored by – you guessed it – opposition parties. Opposition parties who, quite frankly, do not give any indication of being more the slightest bit less sleazy, self-serving or insincere than Thaksin. Extraordinary actions like military coups, which are self-evidently dangerous and antithetical to democracy, require extraordinary justifications, and I am not convinced ongoing public demonstrations with sporadic outbursts of violence meet that standard. The United States endured mass protests for much of the 60’s and early 70’s. What would have happened if our top generals had seized power then, in the face of “ongoing, chronic disorder,” as the Thai generals did? Would our country be a better place under a military junta than the temporary leadership of a misguided president who could just as easily be voted out of office as in? The question is no sooner asked than dismissed.

Third, and finally, I have erred on the side of presenting Thaksin’s case sympathetically because I believe there to be a tendency – from which I am by no means immune – to view wealthy political magnates with a default inclination toward guilt. I think this tendency is well borne out by history – those with much power and much money are not often paragons of virtue – but this kind of stereotyping is in the end obstructive to our pursuit of the truth. If we enter into a trial eager to be convinced of a person’s guilt on account of his or her race, wealth, religion, or whatever, we cannot be said to be administering true justice. I have, therefore, tried to be as honest in relaying the events of Thaksin’s prime ministership in all frankness and honesty, but I have made a special effort to maintain objectivity and to resist a portrayal that might trigger the “Villainous Tycoon” stereotypes many of us carry around in our subconscious.

I acknowledge that this account may seem friendly toward Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai party, then. However, I will add on a final note that the next segment will delve much more deeply into the issues of policy, justice and theory activated by Thaksin’s party, and this analysis will not always be so scholastically urbane. Nor will it so readily discount the claims of political minorities, be they however comparatively affluent or numerically inferior to the majority whose interests are being pursued. De Tocqueville, well placed after the horrific French Revolution, once famously cited the dangers in America of a “tyranny of the majority,” and that danger is no less real in Thailand today than it was in then, in the United States.

My next post will go more in-depth into the issues that have revolved around and contributed to the ongoing controversy of Thaksin Shinawatra’s prime ministership, and how it relates to the crises of today, overseen by his younger sister Yingluck, who has followed her brother into the executive post.

I will also write much more heavily about the fundamental issues of justice underlying all the complex processes of Thai politics. The picture that will emerge will, like Rome, show that there is not always a clear divide between what is desirable and undesirable; what is just and unjust; what short-term sacrifices are necessary for long-term health; and whether democracy is always the road to a better nation.

Until then, thanks, as always, for reading. I’m off to grab another drink and commence thoroughly enjoying the beginning of my vacation.

2Do let’s remember this later, when Thaksin’s monetary dealings come into question.

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