Today is Thaksin’s birthday.
With so much being written about the future of Thailand, it is useful to remember the real roots of the crisis–a conservative and finely balanced political system that was rocked by an ambitious billionaire.
Initially, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party arose not because of the organic popularity of the party, but because of the purchase and absorption of existing political factions and parties. The ease with which the existing political establishment acquiesced to Thaksin was indicative of the weakness and vacuousness of the political world that Thaksin would change forever.
The progressive 1997 constitution enabled the Thaksin revolution. The charter was intended to create a few large stable parties to replace the unstable coalition governments of previous decades. In particular, it banned the ease with which MP factions could instantly leave a government. The charter succeeded in this goal, but the strong party it created–Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai–then went to work to subvert the checks and balances intended to check the political abuse of power.
At the height of Thaksin popularity and power a real clampdown on the media began. The Bangkok Post editor was replaced, webboards were flooded with pro-government posts or pressured to shut down, TV shows featuring political analysis were removed from the airways, polling organizations were raided, iTV’s investigative reporting was silenced, and critical reporters found themselves on lists to be investigated for money laundering.
It was feared that this was leading to a Malaysian- or Singaporean-style one-party government that would dominate the press, the military and the monarchy. In a system where political parties were business entities that often took turns holding power, the specter of a prime minister for life represented a fundamental change.
The roots of the present political crisis are not easy to find online. Since English-language sources of news like The Nation and Bangkok Post change their link structures about twice a year, it is difficult to find news items from Thaksin’s time as prime minister.
Even before the Red Shirt protests in 2010, there was a distinct lack of on-the-ground photos and commentary on Thai politics. The coup of 2006 received minimal outside attention. Even the chaotic events of 2008 and 2009 received only passing coverage and little in-depth comment in English.
This changed in 2010. During the Red Shirt protests that year, dozens of foreign bloggers were roaming around the Red Shirt redoubt in Rajaprasong posting photo essays and breezily commenting on the Red Shirts’ democracy movement. Since that time there has been an explosion of comment on Thai affairs online facilitated by websites such as Facebook and Twitter which essentially allow free blogging services.
This burst of information starting in 2010 impacts the way the Thai political situation is viewed. Most journalists simply use a Google search for their background material. The dearth of info prior to 2010 means that the definition of the present conflict tends to be that the “elite are trying to keep a democratically elected leader from power.” This is certainly the view that pro-Thaksin groups have tried to portray from the beginning.
However, the Thai establishment was more than willing to let the Thaksin-directed Pheu Thai Party raid the nation’s finances to create populist programs to reward its supporters and spend on a scale unimagined by previous governments. Histrionics by the opposition Democrats to stop the Pheu Thai in parliament were met with indifference by the general public.
It was only the attempt to create an amnesty for Thaksin and rewrite the constitution to cement the power of the government that created the imperative to stop the Pheu Thai from creating Thaksin’s one-party state.
Thaksin’s march to power and what it meant to Thai democracy begins well before the 2010 protests or even the 2006 coup. Below is a sampling of news items from Thaksin’s controversial years as prime minister that sheds light on the origins of the present political crisis.
2Bangkok.com Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.
What choice do we have? – September 29, 2004
[Early attack on the anti-Thaksin movement that was to become the PAD. Article points out that those behind it–Sondhi and Ekkayuth–were both failed businessmen embroiled in financial scandals.]
Thaksin and the National Anthem – October 20, 2004
[The aggrandizement of Thaksin a symbol of the nation: inserting Thaksin’s image into the national anthem montage. As with much of the controversy Thaksin courted, there seemed to be little reason for this other than ego.]
Thailand’s strongman: Do we have another ‘indispensable man’? – December 26, 2004
The Weird Claims of Dhammakaya – July 31, 2002
[Religious sect closely connected with the pro-Thaksin movement.]
‘Foreign debt: We could try the Thai way’ – August 18, 2003
[Thaksin’s early repayment of IMF obligations was widely admired.]
Pro-Government forumers who are hired to spin debate on forums – January 6, 2005
Thaksin’s wife owns new party headquarters – July 15, 2005
Notes on the canceling Muang Thai Rai Sapdah – September 17, 2005
[Anti-government political analysis programs axed while pro-government shows continue.]
Thaksin’s Burma blunder – March 6, 2006
[Thaksin tells political parties boycotting snap polls to ask Aung San Suu Kyi about the importance of participating in elections.]
The Gutting of iTV – March 7, 2006
[A key impulse during the Thaksin years was to make sure there were no media outlets in the position of being able to expose misdoings of the government. iTV was a special example as it used hidden cameras to expose corruption. Such an unThai-like confrontational approach was sure to face massive pressure from the Thai Rak Thai Party.]
William L Monson vs Thaksin – May 11, 2006
[An odd event from Thaksin’s business past…]
Finland, monarchy: a dangerous mix – May 25, 2006
Extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers in Thailand – May 29, 2006
[Perhaps the best known excess of the Thaksin years…. It is important to note that these tactics were, and continue to be, very popular with the public. This is because in most areas of the country there is neither dependable law enforcement nor an independent judiciary. Occasional purges of criminals are seen as the only way to tamp down the provincial mafia when they go too far. Also: Chalerm Yubamrung: For drug dealers if they do not want to die, they had better quit staying on that road… drugs suppression in my time as Interior Minister will follow the approach of [former Prime Minister] Thaksin. If that will lead to 3,000-4,000 deaths of those who break the law, then so be it.]
Thai editorial cartoons from the Thaksin years: Is a dealer worth more than an addict?
Thai editorial cartoons from the Thaksin years: Sucking up MPs
Thai editorial cartoons from the Thaksin years: Time to Shoot Those Involved in Drugs
Who wants to lead the United Nations? – June 5, 2006
[Surakiart as UN secretary General: an unfulfilled Thaksin dream and typical of the leadership aspirations he had for Thailand in the wider world.]
Above: Thaksin’s unusual election: the controversial voting booth placement on April 2, 2006 with booths arranged to face outward so the choices of the voters could be monitored.
The boycotted election – April 30, 2006
PM’s role as defender of democracy is a joke – Bangkok Post, July 10, 2006
…But most offending of all seems to be a famous remark about democracy unwittingly made by Mr Thaksin some time ago. “Democracy is not an end in itself, but just a means…”
Consequences of Thaksin’s botched foreign policy – June 8, 2010
Book Review: Thaksin and Thailand’s contentious foreign policy – August 3, 2010
Suvanabhumi Airport Runway Cracks – November 3, 2006
[One of the boldest attempts of the government to silence the press.]
Above: Minister – Made in Hong Kong – Arun, Krungtepturakit, January 27, 2008
It reads: Minister. Made in Hong Kong
[Meaning that Thai government ministers are controlled by Thaksin from Hong Kong.
The People Power Party election win in late 2007 resulted in another year of political tension. Cabinet-level activities ground to a halt as the ruling party insisted the constitution by amended first (presumably to effect a Thaksin return) before any governing take place.]
Note: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Thaksin’s birthday in 2011.