Thaksin Shinawatra: The last chance Thai tycoon

Ex-prime ministers don’t come more colourful than Thaksin Shinawatra. The billionaire politician was ousted in Thailand last year – but he can’t stop making headlines.

By Peter Popham

Published: 26 May 2007


Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand, is not, by any standards, a conventional man. This is a man who, when he was prime minister, tried to deal with an Islamic insurgency by “bombing” the rebels with paper cranes.

When he went into politics he formed a new party and called it Thais Love Thais. Recently, he said he was thinking of starting another one, and calling it the Enjoy Life Party. Nobody was quite sure if he was joking. The ideology of this new party? “Playing golf, travelling, relaxing, meeting friends,” he said with a laugh.

This is also the man who, while in Moscow this week to receive an honourary degree from the Prekanov Economic Institute, chose, despite being one of the richest men in South East Asia, to eat at McDonald’s – where his briefcase, containing his passport and more than $8,000, (£4,030) was stolen. The headline in the Bangkok Post ran, “Thaksin gets Big Mac – and a takeaway”.

Now an asylum-seeker in Britain, where he has a home, he is not only a billionaire (thanks to his mobile phone network) but also, simultaneously, the most popular and the most hated ex-prime minister that Thailand has ever had.

He is still adored by the poor in the country, on whom he lavished development money, debt moratoriums and free health care access. In 2005 they gave him the biggest parliamentary majority of any politician in Thai history – and they would probably vote him into power again if they got the chance.

Yet he is hated by the middle class, in Bangkok and elsewhere, who damn him as a corrupt populist who deserves a long spell in jail rather than another term in office. Dodging both possibilities, he has spent the eight months since his overthrow by the army, while he was playing golf in Beijing, attending to business in London, and teasing both his fans and those who loathe him about his intentions – which appear to include buying a Premiership football club (he is expected to become owner of Manchester City any day now).

He routinely dismisses with a chuckle suggestions that he might get back into Thai politics, or even return to Thailand – he has not been formally banned, but the provisional, army-appointed government has made it clear that his presence will not be welcomed.

But if he really has retired, as he insists – at the age of 58 – then why has he hired American lobbying and public relations firms to tend to his career?

But he is not all jokes. This is also the former lieutenant colonel in the Thai police who, as prime minister, did not bat an eyelid at the extra-judicial killing of 3,000 people during a campaign to stamp out the illegal methamphetamine trade. Throughout his career, Thaksin has been profoundly influenced by America and the American Dream, thanks to the five years he spent during his mid-twenties in the United States. He looks as much of a Thai as the next one, but in reality, he was always a Yankee at the court of King Bhumibol.

The son of a wealthy merchant in the northern Thai city of Chiangmai, Thaksin joined the Royal Thai Police then went straight overseas, to an obscure college in Kentucky, to do a master’s degree in criminal justice. There followed a doctorate in criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

During his time there, far from behaving like the pampered brat of wealthy foreigners, he rose at 3am (his biography claims) to deliver the Houston Chronicle, and flipped burgers at a Burger King. To the family business tradition he added the authoritative streak of police training, and a belief in the American Dream that would end up turning Thai politics upside down.

He first entered Thai politics in 1994, the same year as Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul to whom he has often been compared, entered Italian politics. Behind him was a decade in the police, during which he and his wife Pojaman had also launched a series of businesses, most of which flopped badly.

Not until they branched out into electronics did things finally start to go right, leasing computers to government agencies, getting into cable television and then, with huge success, into mobile phones. By the time he became a politician, his company was the biggest mobile phone operator in Thailand.

His first big political job came with the very Thai tag, “deputy prime minister in charge of Bangkok traffic”. But his impact on Thai politics only began to be felt in 1998 when he launched “Thais Love Thais” – it sounds better in Thai – with a dramatic, populist programme: universal access to health care, debt moratorium for farmers and locally-managed development funds for Thai villages.

“Thaksinomics”, as his economic programme began to be called, was the shrewd application of loads of cash to the poorest sector of the population, who also happened to constitute a majority: the farmers.

Call it socialism or call it pork, the programme did the trick, hauling Thailand out of the 1997 financial crisis and winning him the loyal devotion of the biggest constituency in the country.

The middle classes squealed, the monarchists snorted, the civil servants hated the way he forced them out of their hidebound ways, stripping away their powers and giving them to local politicians. It was the closest thing to a revolution that this deeply traditional country had seen for a very long time.

Where Thaksin suddenly showed a different face was in confronting problems that did not respond to economic measures. To tackle a surging problem with drug addiction, he discarded the ineffectual methods that had been used by his predecessors and instead launched a self-described “ruthless” policy of arrests and seizure, aiming to eradicate methamphetamine abuse in Thailand within just three months.

Police Lieutenant-Colonel Shinawatra was back in action, to the outrage of human rights organisations: it was reported that 3,000 people were killed without process during the campaign.

The bloody revival of a long-simmering insurgency in the Muslim south of the country again elicited the pitiless policeman in Thaksin, a series of bombing attacks being answered by the brutal repression of peaceful anti-government protesters, including the killing of 84 by the army at a mosque in Tak Baj.

Thaksin then tried a charm offensive, but that seemed equally ill-conceived. He appealed to the entire nation to make folded paper cranes – the famous symbol of peace at Hiroshima – which would then be dropped on the south’s Muslim majority communities as a gesture of reconciliation and peace.

Neither Thaksin’s brutality nor his whimsy appeared to do him any harm with the voters, and in February 2005 he won a second term as prime minister with a landslide victory.

Where he went wrong was in supposing that imported neo-liberal concepts about the freedom of movement of capital and foreign ownership of strategic industries would find ready acceptance in Bangkok.

When in January 2006 the Shinawatra family sold their stake in Shin corporation, which ran the mobile phone operator that had made them rich, to Singaporeans for a profit of nearly $1.9 billion, Thaksin paid no tax on the vast sum. He was cleared of breaking the law, but the already irritated middle class of Thailand’s cities regarded the obscene sum as the last straw and marched and lobbied for months demanding his resignation.

They didn’t get it, but in September, when the prime minister was far away at the General Assembly of the United Nations, he was ousted in Thailand’s first coup for 14 years.

Today, Thaksin insists his life in politics is behind him. He told Time Magazine: “I’ve lost weight because I have time to do yoga … I’m very relaxed. Thanks to the CNS” – the military’s ruling Council for National Security – “I can retire. After being ousted, I had a very good excuse to quit politics.”

The generals, however, do not believe a word of it. Mentions of Thaksin in the national press are rigorously censored and they are doing all in their power to expunge memory of his whirlwind years in power from the national memory. They are not helped by Thaksin’s replacement, Surayud Chulanont, who is commonly described as “a hermit who raises turtles”.

Is Thaksin gone for good? Despite a pile of corruption investigations against him which may yet result in criminal prosecutions, the generals are not betting on it; and millions in the countryside are nostalgic for the years of pork.

The man himself routinely denies he has any intentions of trying to regain high office, but, as Tony Blair can tell him, the “pull of power” is pretty strong. Manchester City’s slogan may be “City till I die” – but it would be surprising if Thaksin sang along very heartily.

 From: Independent UK

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