The only Thailand Prime Minister to serve out a full term, Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the Thai military in 2006, and since then has been traveling the world as a man without a country. Sentenced to two year prison term for corruption by Thai Supreme Court, Thaksin has eluded extradition deftly, but recently Thaksin’s increasing stopovers in Cambodia has brought a frown upon the “Land of Smiles.”
First voted into power in 2001 and reappointed in 2005, Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon and former policeman, is associated with successful Thai democratic processes, a first for a country accustomed to military-backed governance. His leadership includes highlights such as establishment of universal healthcare, rural poverty alleviation, and crackdowns on the drug trade, as well as pock marks such as corruption, human rights violations, and suppression of the press.
In 2006, a military junta removed Thaksin from leadership, and he has been convicted in absentia of corruption and conflict-of-interests violations. The regime change was bloodless and won the approval of the Thailand well-beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Eventually military rule ceded to elections in 2007 which brought current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a parliament member and a son of an influential family, to power. For many, Thaksin represents the potentiality of the rural and the poor to shape Thai politics, and professor Danny Unger notes that the Thai election of Thaksin marked how “The genie of more participatory politics is out.”
Previously based in Dubai, Thaksin, now an international drifter with passports issued by Nicaragua, and Montenegro, has been lately plotting a holding pattern closer to Thailand, raising the anxiety level of the Thai government. In November 2009, Hun Sen has declared Thaksin as a guest of Cambodia and he appointed Thaksin an economic advisor. This act inflamed the sitting Thai administration. As a protest, Thailand recalled its ambassadors from Cambodia, and Cambodia responded in kind mere hours later. Tensions have only escalated since. As Arjun Subrahmanyan, Southeast Asian Historian notes, “Thaksin’s alliance with Hun Sen now is a great opportunity for his political opponents to merge two ‘enemies’ into one threat.” Accordingly, Prime Minister Abhisit’s hard line against Cambodia and Thaksin has resulted in a surge in his approval ratings, and Shawn Crispin for the Asia Times , observes that Abhisit now “has political motivation in maintaining, if not ramping, tensions with Cambodia until elections are held next year.”
Thaksin’s motivation for stalking Thailand politics is muddy, but the disquiet resulting from the visit has become more than apparent. A Thai army headquarters suffered a grenade attack the week before Thaksin’s January 2010 visit, and a rally by 50,000 Thaksin supporters in the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD aka “red-shirts”) coincided with his landing in Cambodia.
His investments abroad, which included the soccer team Manchester United and Ugandan goldmines, has maintained himself and his family while in self-imposed exile. Sophon Onkgara reports that Fallout from the 2009 Dubai credit debacle may have significantly hit Thaksin’s resources, consequently “the assets of 76 billion baht (US$2.2 billion) frozen by Bangkok – and about to be decided on by a court, with a verdict expected this month – becomes more indispensable, representing a larger portion of what he owns than ever before.” CIMB analysts, in their 2010 Thailand Outlook, predict that “Thaksin’s assets will be confiscated. Perhaps in anticipation of this, Thaksin has begun to fight back, by trying to discredit the present government.”
The mobilization of “red shirt” protesters may be strategy to force early elections in Thailand which could favor pro-Thaksin faction, which are currently being planned for late 2010 or early 2011 to coincide with the Thai economy’s recovery. “The highly anticipated February 26 verdict has already weighed against political stability and could trigger volatile new street protests in the weeks ahead,” according to Shawn Crispin.
The expected turmoil has stymied private investment in Thailand, but there is optimism about the country’s economic recovery if its political instability can be kept off the international center stage.