Thaksin Shinawatra and Military Coup
Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra is a businessman who became the wealthiest person in Thailand, eventually turned into a politician, started a new political party which quickly became the first absolute majority in Parliament in Thailand's modern history, initially had great popularity, but then allegedly used toughly disciplined party votes to erode democracy, allegedly became corrupt and autocratic, alienated many in the intelligencia, and was deposed by a military coup on September 19, 2006.
Best known as "Thaksin" (pronounced "Taksin" where "Tak" rhymes with "clock", never mind the h), he was different from most previous prime ministers and other politicians in that he was very modern, forward-thinking and a extremely successful in business. Definitely not "old guard", nor easily manipulated by other powerful figures, Thaksin was a true leader, not a follower of political special interest groups and voter blocs. Thaksin set trends.
(Shinawatra is pronounced Chin A Wat, "chin" somewhat like on your face, though the origin of the surname reflects Chinese ancestry.)
To understand current Thai politics, you need to understand a little bit of contemporary history.
Thaksin was born to a silk-making business family which had expanded into a bus line and movie theaters. He was a very good student and entered the police academy, where be was the top student upon graduation from Police Cadet School Class 26 in 1973. He won a Thai government scholarship to go to the USA, where he earned a Master's degree in Criminal Justice at Eastern Kentucky University in 1974, and then a PhD in Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas in 1978.
He came back to Thailand and entered the police force. On the side, with his wife he started a computer business in 1982 to supply the police department with software to run its systems. Remember, this is when PCs were new in the US, and even newer to Thailand!
Thaksin had married as a young adult into a rich family. His wife Pojamarn is a very smart yet modest lady. Thaksin has always been a devoted family man, and Pojamarn is much of the brains in this partnership. This marriage has a lot of similarities to Bill and Hillary Clinton with one big exception -- Thaksin is 100% faithful to his wife, in contrast to many other powerful Thai men (though 2007 stories put the downtrodden exiled leader escaping out into shopping malls and into VIP karaoke rooms in the UK with a young Thai lady commoner "friend" for inordinate amounts of time...).
Despite all their wealth and power, Pojamarn has a very modest disposition and does not flash her wealth or power, instead preferring to stay out of the limelight. In social groups as well as privately, she is nice and warm to good people, and if you didn't know better then you may not realize that she's such a wealthy lady or the wife of a Prime Minister. Yet, when it comes to decisions, she is a brilliant analyst and Thaksin depends upon her for many decisions.
Pojamarn was not enthusiastic about Thaksin going into politics in the first place, but compromised on that issue. She has self-confidence but no need to have her ego massaged and prefers to make her place in the world without unnecessary celebrity hassles, and safety first. Her children come first, and she tries to lead a relatively normal life, unlike many of the wives of other politicians and celebrities.
Anyway, rewinding back to 1983, they didn't make a fortune at first in the computer business, though they made good money. They kept investing that money into new cutting edge businesses, such as pagers and mobile phones, long before anyone else. Thaksin was always on the cutting edge.
Bored and frustrated with the police bureaucracy, he resigned the police force in 1987, but that was pretty much a formality reflecting his established business status otherwise.
The Shinawatras then moved from paging to starting a cellular phone business around 1990 (again, ahead of his time), and that is how he eventually made most of his fortune. However, at that time, his companies were practically broke on paper, because he invested all his profits into new cutting edge businesses which weren't yet making money, and he continued going forward on daring and courage. Amazingly to many people, he won a 20 year concession from the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT) to run a mobile phone service. Again, this was years before mobile phones became popular, and a lot of money needed to be invested into those tall antennas around the city and countryside.
Shortly after that, he set up a satellite (as in outer space) company, which broadcast educational TV to rural provincial children, but grew to designing, building and launching its own satellites to export services from outer space to many countries.
These two companies are Advanced Info Service (AIS) and Shin Satellite aka ThaiCom, both of which became very successful in the 1990s.
Pojamarn Shinawatra is heavily invested in property and myriad other businesses (including silk products, with shops in Bangkok which you can go visit), though you'd never know it from the business signs and storefronts around Bangkok and Thailand because they don't flash her name, quite unlike so many other ego driven business developers.
In 1994, Thaksin joined and helped develop a small political party (Palang Dharma, "righteous"), which won just a few seats in Parliament. Not long thereafter, he became Thailand's Foreign Minister in a coalition government. At that time, he resigned every position in the Shinawatra group in order to claim he was clean from vested interests. (However, that didn't seem to be appreciated much, and half a decade later he would be grilled for having nominee shareholders, though it's only natural that he would want to have influence in, and support from, the company he created and led.)
(Notably, one of Thaksin's closest political allies in that party was Ms. Sudarat Keyuraphan, aka "Sudarat", who I mention in a few other places. She continued to be a key player in the TRT party and all the way to the bitter end of TRT by the military coup and subsequent court ruling.)
Details of the time: The Palang Dharma party didn't do well in the polls, but the coalition government (under Banharn Silpa-Archa) of 1994 collapsed, so new elections were called. Thaksin became a Deputy Prime Minister under the next government of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh which came to power in somewhat of a new blueprint that Thaksin would repeat himself 5 years later: General Chavalit created a whole new party, which within the next year won the next election, the so-called New Aspiration Party (NAP). The New Aspirations Party was quickly formed out of nothing by diverse politicians who seemed to be more in a pact to achieve power than for any particular ideology. It was also the first time that a party came to power which had its voting power base as the poor rural northeast. Vote buying is common, and they got more for their money in the relatively impoverished northeast. They received the most votes, though far less than an absolute majority, but enough to be the biggest vote-getting party, which traditionally is given the first chance to form a coalition of parties in Parliament, choose a Prime Minister, and lead the next government.
General Chavalit accomplished success with his new political party and old style corruption, in contrast to Thaksin with his "righteous" Palang Dharma political party.
The 1997 Asia Economic Crash happened shortly thereafter, and while it was in general the fault of the Thai property gold-rush mentality and other pre-existing trends, not the fault of the NAP or new leadership, the NAP leadership nonetheless made it worse by losing Thailand's vast foreign exchange reserves trying to defend against devaluation of the baht, acutely deepening the crisis. PM Chavalit resigned. The NAP became a scapegoat in the eyes of many, simplistically blaming someone else.
In a parliament coup of sorts, the old Democrat Party (with power base in south and central Thailand) put together an alternative coalition government and elected Chuan Leekpai to be PM in late 1997. This group began the thankless task of reform during bad times, and in many ways went unappreciated. Chuan Leekpai is very smart and honest, but he is not charismatic.
Thaksin's group was out of power, and Thaksin was out of office.
General Chavalit's party no longer exists on the political map today, long gone, a flash in the pan with no continuity. It had little ideology.
However, the poor northeast, especially the outer provinces, had long been neglected by Bangkok's power elite. Given its population base and number of voters, it had great potential to put a political party into power, if one party could nearly monopolize the region. Actually, all the poor regions were like this, including the north where Thaksin was from.
Thaksin learned from all of these experiences.
Thaksin, out of political office, started implementing plans for creating and leading his own party. He founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thai love Thai) party in mid-1998, pledging to start a party with fresh new thinking. Thaksin's energy, charisma, and daring put him among the forefront in Thai politics as an outsider.
(It was at this time that I met my current wife , a journalist who had interviewed Thaksin and his wife for a magazine cover story, and in 1998 she predicted he would be the next prime minister...)
One of Thaksin's best friends, going back to police days, was Dr. Purachai Piumsombun, a stauch anti-corruption advocate who rose up and headed the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA). Purachai got his Masters and PhD in the US from Michigan State and Florida State in Criminal Justice. He set up and became Rector of Shinawatra University for Thaksin starting in 1997 (yes, another great project of Thaksin), a beautiful and fairly popular university in rural Pathum Thani just outside of Bangkok.
Purachai is known as "Mr. Clean". When Thaksin set up Purachai as Secretary General of the Thai Rak Thai party, hopes were high that maybe Thaksin's pledges of being "righteous" and anti-corruption might result in some good progress.
However, he eventually recruited the NAP politicians and other cronies to switch to the new party in order to try to establish an absolute majority in Parliament for the first time in Thai history. With his money, Thaksin attracted a lot of the wrong kinds of people.
It was widely believed if Thaksin came to power, he might be able to cut away the most corrupt elements, as long as he maintained an absolute majority with the remainder of less corrupt.
In the 2000 election, Thai Rak Thai won the most seats in parliament, getting 248 out of the 500 seats, just 3 short of an absolute majority, but given multiple other parties, getting a majority was easy. Indeed, they eventually forged a happy coalition of 340 seats out of the 500 seats in Parliament.
Some say Thaksin brought in more coalition partners than necessary, since that was better than them being in the opposition.
Thaksin became Prime Minister, and Purachai became Deputy Prime Minister.
Thaksin almost lost it all due to an anticorruption case in the newly formed National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC), due to the technicality of "concealing assets" by nominee shareholders (his lowly educated maid and driver obliviously owned vast wealth in shares of Shinawatra companies, just routinely signing what they were asked to sign, and disappeared for awhile during the hearings), but under tremendous pressure due to the popular support in Thailand for Thaksin, in a highly controversial and largely unexplained decision, voted 8-7 not guilty. If he had been found guilty, he would have been barred from politics for 5 years.
(The press and a lot of people hotly criticized Thaksin for these nominees, especially as it became a circus atmosphere with them being unable to be found to testify ... but the crux of the matter in my eyes is that it was a very minor issue, and I can't blame a guy for not wanting to just give away control over businesses which he worked hard to develop, investing years of his life into them. The envious were the most fierce critics, a competitor of whom would later hound him by a website manager.co.th . Notably, nominee shareholders are a somewhat common practice in business.)
Once in power, there were the usual broken promises to cronies and shaving away of some unnecessary and most extreme and demanding elements, but all in all, things looked fairly OK.
The big worry was that Thaksin's absolute majority in parliament was so much greater than most anyone had imagined.
Thaksin installed highly talented and competent people into key economic positions, though he made good on some promises by giving many ministry portfolios to cronies (the most laughable being the Ministry of Culture, to the hardly qualified wife of a political crony).
Thaksin and Purachai squeezed out a lot of "dark influential" people from relationships with government officials, mainly the preexisting ones.
However, a lot of frictions developed between Purachai and Thaksin's cronies, as regards corruption. Purachai was realistic in some ways, understanding the political realities, but he drew the lines much clearer than Thaksin did, and maintained a hard line. For the first couple of years, Purachai was also the voice Thaksin needed to hear, and kept Thaksin from straying too far with his power. Thaksin and Purachai remained on good terms for quite some time, but eventually Purachai was massively outgunned and marginalized.
Purachai drew heavy criticism from the male sex tourist and expat community for his curtailing of nightlife closing hours and entertainment zoning, though in contrast this was extremely popular with the Thai population who felt that Thailand's vice was getting way out of control. This was the so-called "social order" campaign.
Purachai eventually resigned from politics in 2005, but he had already been marginalized into oblivion long before that. (He was also a leading candidate to become the next Prime Minister, according to some opinion polls with Thai people, beating out even the leader of the opposition Democrat Party, but Prime Ministers are voted in by Parliament, not the general public.)
Most of Thaksin's and Thai Rak Thai's successful policies and grassroot campaigns didn't make it into the English news, but they are substantial.
The two best known are the universal health care program for the rural poor, and the rural business training and investment program called One Tambon One Product (OTOP).
To help the poor with cheap health care (which is also the Thai Rak Thai voting base), a program was created where anyone could go to a government hospital and get access to a doctor and treatment for 35 baht (equal to about 1 dollar). This is the first time that so many rural poor have had access to professional health care. Obviously, this has created substantial financial burdens on the government hospital infrastructure (but does not affect the countless private hospitals), and has required massive subsidation. There are widespread reports of dysfunctional hospitals and doctors leaving for the private sector by the press, but when you go into the countryside it actually seemed like an improvement in service for people. The health care scheme certainly didn't bankrupt the government, despite the rural health care scheme being heavily subsidized.
If you travel into the rural provinces of the northeast, as I have, then you will come across many poor people who benefited from the universal health care scheme. Indeed, it seemed to open the floodgates at the beginning, for people who should have gone to a doctor long before. There were also preventative health care education campaigns and other things. I and my associates have come across many of these people, and they feel that no prime minister has delivered like Thaksin for poor people.
Still, it has been called a failure in the press due to its requirements for heavy subsidation and the reports of a lot of dysfunctional hospitals, shortages of supplies, and groups of disgruntled government doctors.
The truth is somewhere in between, but my impression is that the universal health scheme had a great extent of success.
It is often claimed that this is how Thaksin essentially buys votes, using taxpayer money. But that's what they've been doing in my home country of the USA for decades -- promise tax breaks to voters in order to get voted in, and never mind the US federal deficit which seems to always hit record highs right after those people get voted in. (A big chunk of US taxes goes into just paying interest on the debt. Not paying it down, but just paying interest.)
However, keep in mind that before Thaksin got into politics, he got into satellite broadcasts of educational TV to rural parts of Thailand, with his own money at risk, when maybe there were more profitable things he could invest in.
Then there is national productivity.
The OTOP project has clearly been a success and very popular. It caught a lot of the public's imagination, and a lot of the training and mentoring in how to do business and sustainable development permeated thru various channels to many more people than the direct beneficiaries. It is difficult to criticize that project and maintain credibility as a critic.
Thaksin definitely got things done. He was also a good orator, but Thaksin delivered on most of his promises. His experience as a business executive, and successful at that, made Thaksin an effective politician.
Unlike old style politicians in Thailand's patriarchal society, Thaksin was clearly a modern, new thinker, came up with solutions to problems quickly, was impatient with bureaucracy and old ways, dealt directly with the people, and made detailed and concrete promises.
His Thai Rak Thai party was well organized, trained in better management, had a modern public relations arm with bright people, and diligently reacted to issues quickly and substantively. The discipline and standards of performance were exceptional for a political party.
Thaksin also demanded higher standards of performance in government, computerizing government as well as government auditing which cut out some kinds of corruption. Thaksin had high standards for government appointees and top managers. Those who didn't perform well were replaced.
Thaksin also pushed for free trade, which you can call good or bad (a controversial topic I won't detail here), but was highly popular with most of the business community.
Dr. Shinawatra's government stood up well for Thailand in the world, and did not easily bow to pressure from foreign powers, including the U.S. and the U.N. While most of its positions are seen in a positive light by foreigners, especially by businessmen, some political positions aren't seen the same way by the foreign press (often sensationalized and quoted out of context), though they are usually quite understandable if you are Thai and looking out for your own best interests. In order for any foreigner to understand or predict the current Thai government's positions, it is important to be able to see things through the eyes of a smart, experienced and independent thinking Thai leader who has more allegiance to his nation and support base than to the western viewpoint, though very westernized as well and extremely free enterprise oriented for development and solutions.
Perhaps his most controversial program was his war against drugs, which brought special attention from international human rights organizations due to the number of "extrajudicial" shooting deaths of people allegedly related to drug trafficking and informants, as well as heavy pressure and even assassination plots against Prime Minister Thaksin from powerful mafia people both inside and outside Thailand. Without doubt, drug supply has been dramatically curtailed and street prices have shot up. Even after the coup, drugs still haven't made a comeback to their pre-Thaksin years. Thaksin brushed off foreign criticism, and it seemed the Thai people did, too, for the war on drugs, as it remained very highly popular.
The drugs problem in Thailand, especially amphetamines, was getting really bad by the time Thaksin came to power, and he quickly reversed that. It became a matter of overwhelming foreign idealist condemnation vs. overwhelming Thai popularity, but it was the Thais who had to live in the drug infested environment, not the ivory tower foreigners.
(I am very anti-drugs, scientifically understanding the effects on the brain, as well as the rise in crime and other problems created in society, so I was never as excited about the rights of drug dealers and users as journalists and idealists were. However, extrajudicial killings should be investigated, especially who ordered them, why, and whether the victims were really secretly involved in making money in the drugs trade. Many people claimed that some victims had nothing to do with drugs, and their killing was motivated by business or political adversaries on a local level. Extrajudicial killings were actually not new to Thailand in drugs busts, going back to when I first arrived here and read the news. Mafia style warfare was to be expected in the war on drugs, as well as elimination of potential informants who could point fingers at corrupt officials and other people in high places, and I was surprised the number was as low as around 2500 people. My anti-drugs page drew emotionally critical emails before the war on drugs, but that's another topic for another day... though it's worth mentioning that I got a lot of heated emails from some foreigners during this time, as if being anti-drugs meant I was for extrajudicial killings. Not at all, they're nuts. Lots of people love to criticize, but where are "citizen reporters" researching victims of extrajudicial killings to get the truth out onto blogs and the web? It's easier to vent criticisms and use your imagination than to find out facts and create solutions.)
On the other hand, there were pressures on the free press early in the administration, and some political opponents were harassed by some government officials in ridiculously overt and corrupt ways, but those seem to have largely subsided, fortunately. A controlled or intimidated press is not in the best interests of any country. Notably, the local TV and radio stations were already controlled by the previous governments, more or less, whereas the newspapers and magazines are fairly free and diverse.
Thaksin was later bragging in public about how free Thailand's press is, as witnessed by the strong criticisms of himself and his government, though Thaksin's lawyers did submit a few libel cases against particular journalists (which brought even more attention to the journalists' allegations).
According to Transparency International, the "corruption perception index" (CPI) under the Thaksin government actually improved over the years, until Thaksin's last year in power.
The Thai government budget switched from deficits to surplusses under the Thaksin government despite increased social spending.
The Thai economy grew robustly. Four years of ivory tower economists and the press constantly forecasting economic collapse due to increased social spending and other economic indicators were not only forgotten, but were replaced by worries that the Thai economy was growing so fast that it could be overheating! In short, the Thai economy became solid in its growth, leaving a lot of pundits hoping that people would forget their past writings.
In 2005, the year of the second election in which Thaksin ran for office again, the Thai Rak Thai party gained even more seats in parliament, up to 377 out of the 500 seats. That's not a coalition, that's the number of seats held by the Thai Rak Thai party! The old Democrat Party was second at 96, Chart Thai at 26, Machachon at 3, and zeros for everyone else. Voter turnout was 72% (though voting is mandatory in Thailand).
This was the first time in Thai history that one party won an absolute majority in Parliament, and Thai Rak Thai did it by a huge margin -- 76% !! They no longer needed any coalition partners.
So, with things going so well, what happened to cause the early dissolution of Parliament in early 2007 and the coup in September?
The Downfall of Thaksin
As noted before, Thaksin came to power based largely on his money as the richest man in Thailand, creating a new party almost overnight by allegedly buying up politicians from other parties, which is the same old story as has been happening in Thai politics for decades, but on a larger scale than ever before. However, this was a whole new party, with real political policies, and a CEO style leader experienced at running large organizations successfully.
Most election time coalitions generally fall apart after the coalition gains power, as there are too many promises made to too many politicians in order to gain power, resulting in internal power struggles afterwards for a limited size of pie. The differences in the year 2000 were:
There is no question that Thaksin is a bright, creative leader who understands problems from top to bottom, has solutions, and has the management skills to implement them and maintain quality control. That is how he got so wealthy in the first place, based on real business.
Like so many other people, I was also very hopeful that Thaksin could be a great leader for Thailand.
However, as I stated from the very start, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrups absolutely" (to quote Lord Acton from 150 years ago), and this was the main issue most everyone worried about from the start (including myself), and especially after the 2005 election. With such overwhelming parliamentary majority, would Dr. Thaksin be able to resist the temptation for wholesale political corruption, despite his statements that he would not use his absolute majority and power for such purposes?
Corruption happens everywhere. Look at the US election in the year 2000. Judges, who are supposed to remain objective and rule by law not by politics, came out ruling for the party which appointed them (and appointments are usually political anyway), all the way up the appeals process and thru the Supreme Court, even though the issue of recounting votes had nothing to do with party ideology. (Only one low level judge didn't rule this way.) That's an obvious case you can count statistically, over 95% corrupt, but there are many such "corruption" cases in every country. Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C., for 10 years, I am well aware of corruption, and the 2000 US election was just a drop in the bucket that happened to be high profile.
The question was not whether a politician or party was corrupt, but the extent of corruption, and whether Thaksin was excessively corrupt and worse than the realistic alternatives.
If you want to be intolerant against any corruption and all corrupt politicians, then you would get rid of most American and Thai politicians and have almost nobody left. The real question is the degree of how much corruption is acceptable.
"Corruption" takes different forms. Money corruption on government projects robs tax payers by some percentage, and results in less competent implementation of projects, but doesn't affect the economy much. That is normal in Thailand (and in the USA).
However, corruption which dismantles the checks and balances system of democracy, or suppresses freedom of speech, or seeks revenge on opponents, is taken much more seriously.
One of the first issues was the "independent TV" iTV buyout and shakeup of editorial staff and journalists by Thaksin's group, which over time became much less independent and the main pro-Thaksin media outlet.
Then came the Anti Money Laundering Office (AMLO) sudden investigation of the founder of a leading opposition newspaper, never mind all the previously long pending cases with merit in the queue, instead quick action on a flimsy allegation.
However, the press was allowed to remain extremely critical of Thaksin, and from my communications with people in both newspapers, interference wasn't too bad (as evidenced by the extremely critical reporting continuing in those newspapers). However, it was because the press fought back, and Thaksin and his cronies backed off for the most part. It was not too bad, and it could have been much worse.
Thaksin was pro-foreigner and pro-business, more internationalist than any prime minister before him, avid of international travel, spoke English fluently, and extremely knowledgeable. His economic and foreign policy team were highly respected. Predictably, many foreign high end business and government people were favorable overall to Thaksin's policies (much moreso than I ever was). The foreign business community remained one of Thaksin's few remaining allies in the end.
There were a lot of things which Thaksin did and said which dismayed me, but I've never known a politician who I liked much, and I don't jump into hateful internet forum or website flames.
Thaksin is actually a fairly nice guy and doesn't come down too hard on his opponents, at least to date.
The main focus of many people were the checks & balances system, and how much they could be eroded.
Those in power allegedly bought up officials left and right.
Thaksin had the usual post-election internal power problems, but he was powerful enough to weather them, and smart enough to know when and how to do relieve them of their positions, both ad hoc and official.
Some of his cabinet reshuffles were entertaining. One of my favorite comments by Thaksin was: "People just want positions, not responsibilities." I guess that can be interpreted as acknowledging that they wanted power and under the table money, but did not really take enough interest in their work and responsibilities. You could see it from the outset. People were heading up ministries whereby they had relatively little educational background or work experience to understand what they were managing. (However, I dealt with this in Washington, D.C., writing primers for political appointee new Directors about the basics... so what's new, it happens in most governments. I could very much empathize with Thaksin when he said that.)
For the general Thai population, the initial Thaksin honeymoon was gradually overcome by too many issues piling up, but Thaksin's main downfall seemed to be the way Thaksin used the divide and conquer strategy to pit the voting poor against the middle and upper classes (except Thai Rak Thai party members) and the resultant risk of class conflict which did not exist so significantly in Thai culture before Thaksin. For example, the Thai Rak Thai party allegedly would pay busloads of poor protesters to come into Bangkok. Busloads were coming in and physical fighting seemed to loom over the horizon.
Then there were things like the notorious quick auctioning of government property to his wife whereby she was allegedly the only serious bidder, and it was prime location property for an allegedly very low price. This also wantonly violated the law as regards government employees' families' participation in buying auctioned government property. The way he rigged that was so overt yet the anticorruption checks and balances system wasn't dealing with the issue because it had allegedly already been hijacked.
Thaksin even proclaimed in a speech before the last (sham) election that the voting districts who vote for his party will get preferential treatment for government money, implying that those who vote for another candidate will lose out. The press grilled him for that. Of course, this is normal in porkbarrel politics, but it's not something a politician should just go out and proclaim. It was brash.
For the educated elite and national security civil servants (as opposed to the general population), the final trigger was the selling off of major Thailand communications infrastructure to the Singapore government-private conglomerate Temasak, which many perceived as a national security issue (loss of control, and potential valuable business communications tapping), especially the "strategic assets" of Thailand's satellites but also including the largest mobile phone provider.
To add insult to many, Thaksin did it in a way so that the 73 billion baht (almost US $ 2 billion) sell-out was all tax free to himself and his family.
It was a very complicated deal involving shares in several companies and foreign controls ... and the competing telecommunications companies also had major foreign ownership percentages ... but what mattered most were the perceptions.
Street protests against Thaksin were forming, and there was also instability within his own party. The political mood had changed sharply in Thailand.
Thaksin dismissed the protesters as a "mob" and vocal minority, pointing out that he was democratically elected, indeed bringing in his counter-mob, with busloads of support demonstrators coming into Bangkok from other provinces, though it was alleged that Thaksin's protesters were paid person-by-person per day.
There were also quite a number of parliamentarians from Thaksin's own party whose loyalty was wavering, and this threatened to really damage Thaksin's image, at least.
Thais tolerate some corruption, but the escalating conflict was seen as too self-serving of Thaksin's wanton unbridled desires and looked destined to get out of hand in the form of class warfare within normally peaceful Thai society.
Thaksin decided to prove his popularity and re-establish his mandate by dissolving parliament and holding a new election, which would not only prove to the public that he is still the overwhelming choice of the people, so the vocal minority would be somewhat silenced by the democratic process, but perhaps also force any wavering members of his own party to choose which side to be on, otherwise he would find other people to replace them and get voted into parliament.
According to some people, Thaksin may have thought that a small fraction of this 73 billion baht would help him pay off people in order to stay in power. He was generating additional money and support by a lot of other ways, too.
What Thaksin didn't count on is that the opposition would boycott the election, and especially that parliament couldn't open due to the 1997 constitution which requires all seats be filled -- but by an overlooked law until then, nobody could win an election in their district with less than 20% of the vote after any runoffs. A boycott could work.
In many parts of Thailand outside of Thaksin's poor voting constituencies, there were jurisdictions in which a Thai Rak Thai candidate was the only one running, and couldn't get 20% of the votes in a runoff, as the majority voted "none of the above" (a ballot option in Thailand), keeping the Thai Rak Thai candidate under 20%.
There were also allegations of opposition politicians hired by Thai Rak Thai just to help out with the legal situation, but which got them into even more trouble by the law!
It was a crisis in Thai society and politics like never before.
It wasn't surprising to find that the Election Commission was toeing the line along Thaksin's preferences. However, at one point the King stepped up and told the Election Commission and the courts to do their jobs. (Eventually, top Election Commission officers went to jail, several months later.)
In a last resort effort to resolve the situation, Thaksin declared that he would step down as Prime Minister after successful elections and parliament had chosen a successor, but please, let's vote in a new Parliament now, was his thrust. However, Thaksin's history with nominees and proxies made it clear that there wouldn't be much change under one of his hand picked Prime Ministers. Of course, when Thai Rak Thai would win its majority, then it could vote Thaksin in as Prime Minister again whereby he could easily go back on his spoken promise, which was not legally binding, of course.
After all the turmoil, a new election was set for October 15. Thaksin remained as caretaker Prime Minister until the next parliament could replace him.
It seemed to many people that democracy had ceased to function under Thaksin, and it increasingly looked like the only way out was a military coup to forcibly restore democracy. This was rumored, but the vast majority of people found it hard to imagine a military coup in modern Thailand. Besides, Thaksin had put some loyalists in key positions in the military and police force which appeared to trump that option.
On the evening of September 19, the unthinkable happened -- there was a military coup, bloodless and very popular with the general public (except in Thaksin's northeastern and northern power base), while Thaksin was at the United Nations in New York preparing to make a speech the next day.
In Thai society, there is no way a military ruler could rise to power and stay there, and the coup leaders from their first public announcement stated their clear intentions to return Thailand to democracy as soon as possible, after clearing out Thaksin's corrupting influence. They initially called themselves the Council for Democratic Reform, though they later became known as the Council for National Security.
Thaksin was the hottest political issue to hit Thailand since I arrived in 1994. There's no other issue that comes close. This I measured by heated exchanges in the news, and also messages to me personally as webmaster of Thailand Guru because some of my writings on Thaksin pointed out his good side. I also had writings pointing out his bad side and his risks, I think in a balanced way, but among foreigners, my writings didn't conform to a common, vocal anti-Thaksin extreme bias among a big chunk of the web.
Many foreigners were initially very critical of Thaksin's early "social order" campaign which forced bar closures at 1am, and the war against drugs, both coming very early in the Thaksin administration. However, Thaksin wasn't given much positive review by foreigners in the news and on web forums by his successful economic leadership and various projects for Thai people and in the Thai economy.
I would like to say that having lived and worked in Washington, D.C., for 10 years, most of that time as a communications consultant, suffice it to say that I have seen a whole lot of politics and corruption, and I don't get worked up over politics and isolated corruption like so many other people do. It's all relative, to me, especially as regards not just the alternatives, but the realistic not idealistic alternatives. However, Thaksin represented an extreme case relative to his country, and nothing like this had ever existed in Thailand's history, especially in the last few years of Thaksin's rule, after he boosted his party's parliament standing from 49% to 76%. This whole situation is uncommon in the world.
I try to present all sides to an issue, as best I can, space permitting, and in a balanced way, both for and against both sides. I don't conform to foreigner-dominated web board trends nor journalistic trends any more than Thaksin / Thai Rak Thai power pressures (and who knows whether some messages I received were from Thaksin's public relations machine). I don't go read others' opinions before adopting one as my own. I can think by myself. I also try to understand the Thai people, since it's their country, not here just for foreigners' business, political, or personal conveniences. I was never as anti-Thaksin as many web board conformists and bad news sensational journalists, nor was I as pro-Thaksin as many powerful business interests. However, I did try to balance out around-the-table dinner or beer(!) discussions when others took one side or the other, commenting on the actual merits of their viewpoint but also presenting the other side's schools of thought. If that led people to think I was part of their opposition, then they misunderstood, and that comes from inside them, not me. It's normally a mixed bad of good and bad, and you can't say someone is all good or all bad.
There is a tendency for people to take sides, and then take on an attitude. From my experience, it seems that the foreign businesspeople and managing directors usually are sympathetic to the government (maybe because they relate to the challenges of getting things done, and current policies which affect their businesses), whereas others tend to see the people who get elected as achieving that because they are the most corrupt and thus could buy the most votes (an often valid analysis historically, though leadership charisma often counts more).
From my experience in Washington, D.C., however, I am aware that the press and many people misinterpret the intentions of news makers, and are simplistic in their analysis in order to sell a story. The same applies to web forum infotainment. Bad news travels further than good news, because it sells better. Fear, hate ... and violence and sex. ;-)
Some people complain too much about every Thai ruling party and about Thailand in general, leaving others to wonder why they choose to live here. Just like in the news -- the headline focus is on bad news, violence, and sx, just appealing to the base instincts of the lowest common denominator, getting their attention and keeping them awake and entertained -- people like to criticize and complain on forums and in emails, but are less prone to give credit where it's due.
I try to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly, but especially the beautiful and wonderful, too -- the whole story, as I see it, regardless of the trend of the day. Criticisms are quite welcome, but I hope my responses will really be considered, too.
I also don't like arguing too much, and prefer to focus on what is to be learned from all this. Some people get emotional, especially about politics, dig in their heels in their position, and it's like their feelings over other injustices in the world (or frustrations in their Thailand life) can be blamed on somebody else or outside factors, whereby they lose reason and blame Thaksin or the coup or Thai people or the civil servants ... or me ... for problems which may actually have different origins, often longterm and deeply ingrained. And few opinions change after such arguments.
It's a fact that Thaksin had both his significant good side and his bad side. If you think he was all bad, then I think you need to look inside yourself for the source of that hatred. He didn't order hit men on his opponents or jail them, and he really did what I've seen countless people do on a smaller scale -- if they had the power to self-aggrandize, they did it! He's not an innately mean guy, personally. (Some of his cronies were much more ruthless.)
Mainly, in my view, Thaksin has a strong ego streak and can be blinded by greed. Psychologically, I would not be surprised if he can't even see how he damaged Thai democracy, created serious social divisions in Thai society, and was so grossly corrupt -- far from optimal leadership. He seems to think he was a democratically elected leader who upheld democratic principles (including checks and balances?) that was illegally overthrown by an evil military coup, which is what his sycophant cronies, spin doctors, and rich men will encourage him to think.
It is common for a leader to surround himself with sycophants who encourage each others' viewpoints to the extreme, whereby they get out of touch with the general population and are in for a surprise when they actually implement the measures which look good to all the sycophants. It is important for a leader to also have people in their inner circle who will voice alternative opinions and warn of the consequences of following the advice of sycophants. It seems that Thaksin surrounded himself too much by power hungry sycophants.
Many people in the press pointed out that democracy is not robust, e.g., Hitler was democratically elected, and then Hitler's majority party proceeded to ram laws thru its majority held parliament which gradually put an end to democracy. There was a backlash that comparing Thaksin to Hitler was going too far. Thaksin didn't hire hit men, and didn't really put down classes of people. Other countries have had a leader hijack democracy and become essentially a dictatorship, too. The process was the same, the hijacking of the judiciary and checks & balances system. So many leaders have said they will step down at crisis points, but later not actually do so, or at least try their best to circumvent stepping down.
Thaksin was actually pro-foreigner overall, and it could have been a lot worse. Many foreigners actually don't know much more than what they read on web boards and in the newspapers, which are mostly the negative side (though one of the checks & balances).
If you look at the economic policies as well as some of the technical and social programs, it was actually quite a remarkable party and government leadership, and had its good elements, albeit they now seemed buried among the bad.
Economic recovery and growth in Thailand had been strong since his election in 2000, but I think most of that would have happened anyway, thanks to the structural reforms of the previous PM Chuan Leekpai's government, and the world economy. The year 2001 was a good time to become Prime Minister.
Thaksin had it made, and he blew it. He could have been Prime Minister for a very long time and a national hero, but he surrounded himself with cronies who were greedy about money and power, and Thaksin didn't stand up for what is right, so Thaksin will go down in history otherwise.
The Ph.D in Criminal Justice was surrounded by crooks and conforming "yes men" who knew how to push his greed buttons, none of whom risked their positions by telling Thaksin what he really needed to hear as leader. He had let them oust Purachai, his best friend and advisor.
No question, Thaksin created his own circumstances in being forcefully deposed, and he cannot blame anyone but himself. (And to Temasak and the Singapore government, shame on them, but they apparently thought Thaksin would be Prime Minister for a long time and take care of them.)
Thaksin had more than enough, but greed set in, he wanted it ALL, and he was surrounded by cronies.
Why did Thaksin and his cronies do this? "Because they could." Especially with a parliament majority of 76% since the 2005 election. Things went downhill sharply after that election, opposite to the mandate they could have had.
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They blinded themselves with greed; it's that simple. Everyone saw it except themselves. Thaksin was like "the emperor with no clothes", surrounded by sycophant cronies encouraging him along.
Most of Thailand rejoiced when the military coup first happened, with the exception of Thaksin's poor power base in the northeast and north who resented it.
Most people wish he would find bigger and better things in the world than vindicate his bruised ego. (After the coup, Thaksin bought up the Manchester United football team in the UK. For Americans who don't know British football, Manchester is a leading professional football team, like buying the Dallas Cowboys would be.)
Thaksin was apparently able to get most of his money out of Thailand. How much he has offshore, maybe nobody knows except Thaksin and his inner circle, but it's probably billions of dollars, many tens of billions of baht.
However, I don't think we've seen the last of Thaksin. He is very skilled at using nominees and proxies.
I don't think he has the character to rise above money and lead morally. I think he is blinded by a lust for power and greed, and has surrounded himself with corrupt politicians and has a power base of large numbers of poor and lowly educated masses due to patronage. He has so much money that he doesn't need to, but he just can't step up to the next realm of intellectual class.
I am afraid Thaksin's ego is just too big and out of control, his treasure chest now too big, and his contacts too wide and deep, whereby he will not go away, so this saga will continue by his proxy nominee party, the "People's Power Party" (PPP), "Palang Prachachon" in Thai. While Thai Rak Thai was banned from politics, the remaining members just went and created a new party, and it's pretty much the same as before. They get their orders from Thaksin. PPP leaders fly out of Thailand as a group and go meet with Thaksin. They also chose an extremely controversial and fiery leader in Samak Sundaravej who openly proclaimed himself Thaksin's nominee. (He is discussed in my Commentary.)
How significant Thaksin's influence will be depends on the next election and how well his proxy party does. It looks like their northeastern power base will give them more seats in Parliament than any other party, but probably not an outright majority by one party. Then it becomes a matter of whether they can form a coalition majority. This next coalition will never be as overwhelming or stable a majority as the Thai Rak Thai party had in 2005.
The biggest problem in Thai politics is that no other party has come out with strong enough appeal. If you compare the party platforms, guess which one looks best, by far? The PPP's. It seems that Thaksin and his banned leadership can still create wonderful party platforms. Ghostwriters?
Even if the PPP leads a coalition government, I don't think it will make a huge difference in Thailand's direction. All parties are pro-business, and the PPP is no exception. Thailand is run mostly by myriad business interests, not the government.
However, a key issue is the amendment of business laws which affect foreigners, of which there are some important decisions left up to the next parliament as high on the agenda. The PPP has internationalist leaders at the top, but it does have a nationalist voter base in the northeast.
However it goes, I don't think it will substantially affect most foreign people or Thais, but it could affect people in some sectors of business.
Thailand has tremendous inertia in its career civil servants in Bangkok.
I know people of various political parties here (including former Thai Rak Thai and opposition parties), and they don't seem to be so passionate about things in private even though they are politicians from opposing parties, though you can bet they will make strong arguments in public and on TV in order to help get elected! They sure turn up the speaker volume to nearly window-shattering levels in their drive-by campaigning.
I don't plan to write much more about Thaksin if I don't have to. There seem to be more practical and important things to spend time and effort on, but I thought that I should at least address this topic due to all the emails I've received over the past 7 years, and likely to receive in the next year.
Note: My previous Thai wife, while a journalist in the mid-1990s, interviewed Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife at their home, and co-authored the cover story of a monthly magazine on leaders in society which focused on Thaksin in that issue. However, she interviewed a lot of people from multiple political parties and other walks of life for other articles, and is pretty neutral and just matter of fact about Thaksin and others. She told me rather matter of factly that Thaksin would become Prime Minister in a few years, for better or worse, a prediction that I closely followed and which indeed unfolded. What a ride it's been over the past 10 years!
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