Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair

Jan McGirk
3 April 2006

The political career of Thaksin Shinawatra is approaching its end. After barely scraping victory in the snap election he had called for 2 April 2006, even after much of the opposition had boycotted the polls, Thailand's caretaker prime minister has conceded the result's fatal blow to his authority. Two days on, he has announced his resignation, which will take effect (as the constitution requires) within thirty days.

It wasn't meant to be like this. Thaksin calculated that the poll – called only thirteen months after a decisive electoral victory had reaffirmed the mandate he first won in 2001, and in the face of a rising tide of urban protest among Bangkok's middle class – would consolidate his claim to be the figure able to lead millions of poorer, rural Thais into boom times. His achievement in lifting millions of small farmers out of poverty (albeit increasingly into debt) was to be the foundation of the billionaire premier's third success.

When the moral backlash against the January 2006 sale of his ShinCorp company to the Singapore government's investment firm Temasek erupted into a peaceful urban revolt, his response was to ensure that cash kept trickling down to his loyal base in the boondocks – and then to appeal to them, "his" people, to vote him another term.

Thaksin's critics – who will become even more numerous now that his days in office are numbered – argue that his executive hubris and greed are to blame for his downfall. The evidence has been accumulating during his five years in office, despite his numerous attempts to quash criticism with criminal-defamation lawsuits designed to bankrupt any faultfinders. But the dam only broke when he engineered a legal loophole that allowed his family's telecommunications conglomerate ShinCorp to secure a tax-free profit of $1.9 billion. In a country where the gap between haves and have-nots has been widening under his governance, it was a deal too far.

The details of the sale confirmed the sense of grubbiness that surrounded it. Thailand's "first family" had holidayed with Singapore's prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and his family over the (western) new-year holiday. Bangkok's erstwhile power elite and tax-strapped middle classes were incensed to realise that within a month Ho Ching, Lee's wife, would be overseeing decisions on Thailand's satellites, internet servers, and its biggest mobile-phone network. Even the deal-making Thaksin, who frequently boasted of running the nation like a modern CEO, found such a brazen sellout hard to justify.

What followed was remarkable: day after day of peaceful demonstrations as tens of thousands of Bangkok residents made the city's vast green Saman Luang park their own, gridlocking the capital (and other urban hubs), thwarting business decision-making, sapping further Thailand's sagging stock market, and provoking escalating political turmoil.

The days turned into weeks. The street demonstrations grew rowdier, tens of thousands of voices demanded their arrogant leader get out of government, the speeches to the enormous gatherings in Saman Luang became more insistent, while a countervailing tractor-borne "caravan of the poor" entered the fray with raucous declarations of loyalty to the besieged prime minister. As Thailand's body politic slouched toward constitutional chaos, something had to give. In the end it was Thaksin Shinawatra.

Jan McGirk is southeast Asia correspondent for the Independent

Also by Jan McGirk in openDemocracy:

"Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand" (April 2005)

"Bali's message of dialogue" (August 2005) – this article contains the full text of the interfaith "Bali Declaration" of July 2005

"Bali's agony, Thailand's turmoil" (October 2005)

"Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake"
(October 2005)

"Thailand's endemic insurgency"
(November 2005)

"Western NGOs and the tsunami test"
(December 2005)

"Thailand’s rising tide" (February 2006)

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An atmosphere of crisis

The election was the self-inflicted straw that broke the tycoon prime minister's back. Thailand is still reeling from the political chaos, but Thaksin's resignation at least offers an opportunity that the cavernous power vacuum of the last three months will be filled in a way consistent with a fraying constitutional order.

The bizarre election illuminates the challenge ahead. The three most important opposition parties – the Democrats, the Chart Thai, and Mahachon – agreed to recommend to their supporters to mark "no vote" on the ballot-paper in the premature poll as the best way to register contempt for Thaksin's policies in a society where voting is mandatory.

In the capital, Thaksin's unchallenged Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party swept all the seats in an official turnout of 63% (2.6 million voters in total, of whom 50.13% submitted blank ballots). Across Thailand, 10 million voters followed the opposition parties' lead and abstained – effectively a vote against Thaksin – or else ticked minority parties lacking any chance of success. The combined results mean (unless and until new elections are held) that by-elections will be required in thirty-eight different constituencies where the pro-Thaksin candidate was unchallenged and failed to win at least 20% of the votes; these contests are scheduled for 23 April, and new candidates will be allowed to run.

In the aftermath, Thaksin put on a brave face but was clearly stunned by his failure to secure the decisive result he had expected. "I want reconciliation for the country", he emoted on a special ninety-minute television programme, sentimentally titled Thaksin's Heart Revealed. "I will do anything. I have retreated so many steps that my back is against the wall."

In his desire to appear statesmanlike, he offered to appoint a non-partisan panel of eminent advisors – generals, judges and former heads of state to consider the best way forward. If this was an uncharacteristically conciliatory gesture, the offer to step down if opponents called off the street protests and allow him to restore law and order was a sign of desperation. "It is not necessary for me to be prime minister," he conceded, looking humbly at the camera. But electoral law required that any stand-in would have to be from Thai Rak Thai, and Thaksin was prepared to start unilateral constitution reforms if rival parties did not cooperate. The opposition stood firm.

Thaksin confessed amazement when he heard the opposition Democrat Party, in the shape of its baby-faced leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, appeal for royal intervention – even though the message had been bandied about at demonstrations for half a year. There was no indication that King Bhumibol Adulyadej would invoke an emergency proviso in the constitution to replace the prime minister; but Thaksin's staff later caused frenzy among the press corps by confirming that the prime minister was planning his own meeting with the king on 4 April. Nothing extraordinary, reassured the advisers: this is a previously scheduled meeting to discuss the celebrations for the king's diamond jubilee, his sixtieth anniversary on the throne. Thailand's constitutional monarchy evolved out of a theocracy, and the king is held in awe by most of his subjects.

The opposition were not buying Thaksin's damaged goods. As he clung to power on 3 April, Bangkok's strident anti-government protestors geared up to disrupt any thought of a return to "business as usual". Members of the new People's Alliance for Democracy (Pad) coalition summoned its supporters to besiege the government's headquarters, the Singapore embassy, and the air-conditioned shopping malls where moneyed Thais take refuge from the ordinary folk on the streets. It was not exactly "people power", since even in a degraded contest Thaksin's party retained the loyalty of farmers in the rice-bowls of north and northeast Thailand. But in the capital, where he is considered by many citizens a nouveau riche interloper, Thaksin's position was looking increasingly precarious.

Media mogul Sonthi Limthongkul, who unleashed the anti-Thaksin campaign in September 2005 – before the ShinCorp scandal broke – described the prime minister's belated offer to step down as a last-ditch grasp for power by Thai Rak Thai and vowed that a huge street rally set for Friday 7 April would proceed. Pad braced for a crackdown and arbitrary arrests by the 20,000 security troops assigned to crowd control. Suriyasai Katasila, a key Pad leader, said: "When the prime minister makes an official announcement to the public that he will resign, the alliance will end its rallies immediately."

Chamlong Srimuang, the ascetic Buddhist general, led a successful 1992 protest that deposed Thailand's last military junta. He has turned from Thaksin's political mentor into one of his fiercest foes. Chamlong announced to his barefoot "Dharma Army" of Buddhist monks that Thaksin's flawed leadership had ushered in the darkest chapter of recent Thai political history and denounced his offer of reconciliation as trickery: "Just picture this – a thief broke into our homes, then asked us to remain idle for the sake of reconciliation. This is unacceptable."

Abhisit Vejjajiva echoed the gathering contempt for the wounded prime minister: "There are a lot of people who voted 'no vote' this time. It shows that most people think this election is not the answer to the problem right now. And that's the reason the Democrat Party didn't join the election in the first place." Abhisit commented that it is "too late for national reconciliation" and that his party would participate in new elections only if Thaksin resigned first.

Somchai Phagaphasvivat, a political-science professor from Bangkok's Thammasat University, predicted a risk of street confrontation as long as Thaksin attempted to hold the reins: "Thaksin wanted to legitimise his rule with an outright victory, but victory here is very doubtful. Thailand is a unified country, and you can't say you have a majority only in some parts of the country. When you talk about political legitimacy, it should be widespread, not territorial."

The curtain falls

It has been almost too easy to vilify Thaksin; like the European counterpart to whom he is so often compared, Silvio Berlusconi (now too also facing a critical election), he provides plenty of ammunition to his enemies. In any case, for superstitious Thais the omens could hardly have been worse for him as his second term proceeded. The war on separatist insurgents in the three Muslim-majority provinces in the south, which has claimed more than 1,300 lives since it reignited in January 2004, shows no sign of abating; an inauspicious astrological alignment that predicted misfortune for this triple-Leo leader caused the prime minister to suspend public speaking in December 2005; and at the height of Bangkok's anti-government protests in March 2006, a deranged citizen of Muslim background smashed the revered statue of Brahma at the downtown Erawan shrine after midnight (before being beaten to death by outraged onlookers).

The destruction of the most popular religious icon in Bangkok, believed to smooth life's obstacles and bestow prosperity, precipitated great sorrow. A white sheet soon shrouded the empty pedestal, and yellow crime-scene tape supplemented the garlands of marigold, orchids and lotus blossoms draped around its base. Pedestrians attempted to avert any sudden misfortune by lighting thousands of joss-sticks; clouds of scent wafted over the traffic fumes for many hours.

Thaksin said he was "appalled" by the wanton destruction, and ordered that it be restored as soon as possible, incorporating any remaining shards. Meanwhile, Thaksin's wife directed Feng Shui specialists to rearrange the layout of furniture inside the Thai Rak Thai offices.

The signals of misfortune turned out to be prescient. The chants of "Thaksin get out!" that first resounded on the Saman Luang were gradually adopted by a powerful minority of Thais across all generations and classes. The ruling party's attempt to dismiss them as xenophobes and moralists determined to block modern development and trade agreements backfired. Thaksin Shinawatra is on his way out. A political era in Thailand is ending.

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