Why Thaksin won’t quit Thai politics

Notwithstanding his recent comments on CNN and in Time magazine, deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has sent mixed signals on his political intentions. On the one hand, he stated categorically that he has had enough where his future role in Thai politics is concerned, that he wants to spend his time with family and on charity activities. On the other, Thaksin has practically staged a political offensive with personal comments in the media and views expressed through his representatives at home and abroad, taking the Council for National Security and the interim government to task for undermining Thai democracy and mismanaging the economy.

Thaksin, in short, has been a constant source of far-reaching political ripples at home even while he is abroad. His words and deeds, in the past as in the present, are always fluid and elastic, never set in stone, contingent on changing circumstances. A crafty tactician with boundless manoeuvres, he a wily agenda setter, who likely won’t know how to quit Thai politics even if he wants to. His eventual return to Thailand, not as a mere citizen but as a political force to be reckoned with, is attributable to four key factors. 

First, Thaksin is at heart a monopolist accustomed to winning his ways. His track record, in business and later in politics, portrays a man who rose to the top of his game time and again ahead of fierce competitors. Myriad biographies and auto-biographies about him paint a man on a mission, from modest but not humble origins to the occupancy of Thailand’s top office. His nature is not to accept defeat unless it is forced on him, as when he ditched his failed computers business for a lucrative mobile phone concession in the late 1980s or in the military coup last September.  

Even in defeat, Thaksin always maximised his terms. His background is not someone who walks away from setbacks, hands down, in complete resignation. His habit was always to fight back. This is why he still represents a potent and unprecedented political phenomenon even while being out of the country. His personality and habit of winning suggest against a unilateral withdrawal when he could still be elected as prime minister if polls were held tomorrow.  

Second, he commands deep pockets owing to a telecommunications empire built on state concessions and government connections. The sale of his family’s flagship company, Shin Corp, to Temasek Holdings early last year netted Thaksin a 73.3 billion baht windfall. Beyond money, however, Thaksin is a unique, consummate and ultimate Thai political actor, who can count on a vast network of contacts, informants, sympathisers, and loyalists in many echelons of the police, the military, the bureaucracy, the private sector, not to mention the rural masses and urban poor who voted his Thai Rak Thai party into office in January 2001 with two successful re-elections in February 2005 and April 2006 – the latter result subsequently nullified. The immense and unrivalled resources at his disposal, both money and personal networks, will encourage him to stay in the game.

Third, and perhaps most important, Thaksin believes in the righteousness of his cause. This is a point about Thaksin that his opponents and sworn enemies like to sweep under the carpet. While he is justifiably deplored for corruption and abuses of power, Thaksin sees his pro-poor populist platform as a confluence of innovative ideas to remake Thailand into a more egalitarian society, thereby uprooting its ostensible neo-feudal underpinnings.  

Although Thaksin has a serial knack for betraying his own words, as in his assets concealment trial in 2001, he sees himself not as a traitor or dictator, but as a conqueror of Thai democracy and hero of the Thai people. He is more likely to go out as martyr than quitter. His cause and self-righteousness are so magnetic that his inner circles of core supporters have not deserted him, his Thai Rak Thai party not disbanded despite his absence. His political allies are still there not just because of his money, but because of their collective belief in Thaksin’s grand ambition to remake Thailand, rationalising all of his and their own conflicts of interests, cronyism, corruption, and abuses of power as justifiable collateral rewards and expedient means to justify Thailand’s loftiest end.

Finally, Thaksin may well be counting on the ineptitude of his political conquerors who ousted him in the September 19 coup. This has been the murkiest and most ambivalent coup in Thai political annals. After four months of rule by the CNS and the government of caretaker Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, the Thai political scene remains as unsettled as much of last year when Thaksin was trying to overcome his Bangkok-based street opponents.  

The coup makers have unintentionally created the enabling conditions for Thaksin to make his comeback. They have been made to respond to Thaksin’s accusations and criticisms of their post-coup management. Their domestic media gag order was rendered irrelevant by Thaksin’s CNN and Time magazine comments, which were reported widely in the Thai press. Their appointed government’s policy vacillation has dented investor confidence and undermined the credibility and legitimacy of both the ruling generals and the Surayud cabinet. As Thaksin hectors them from abroad, the CNS and the Surayud government remain on the defensive. Thaksin has not come back mainly because he does not yet want to, not because the coup makers say so.  

In view of Thaksin’s ability to generate such discomfort for the men in uniform and destabilise the government even from afar, the CNS and the Surayud administration must get their acts together quickly, as the sheer force of their nemesis’ personality, resources, and conviction will almost certainly bring him back into the fray before long. They need to win over Thaksin’s massive followers by openly adopting and admitting the virtues of some of the overthrown leader’s people-oriented policies and to undertake a legal and political offensive to ensure that he will not want to come back in the foreseeable future.  

Author: Thitinan Pongsudhirak (source)

Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.


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