Thaksin Shinawatra defined Thai politics for a generation and forever reshaped it. Somehow, this elite capitalist billionaire became the unquestioned champion for a destitute peasantry. Thaksin’s politics defied left-right categorisations, creating an economic miracle, lifting millions out of poverty while further developing the very same mechanisms of capital that had placed them in said destitution. He was a deeply complex and flawed character, but one that was ultimately a victim of his own success.
Born in Chiang Mai in 1949 to the wealthy Thai-Chinese Shinawatra family and a descendant of the former Lanna royal family that once ruled what is today northern Thailand, young Thaksin’s blood was blue.
He spent his youth accumulating social capital, and after attending Montfort college in Chiang Mai, Thaksin joined the elite Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. The school is highly selective, accepting only 1% of applicants and is known as a gruelling institution and more importantly the first step on the road to becoming one of the military elite. Shortly after graduating, he joined the police force as an officer, which led him to further study in Kentucky and Texas where he earned a doctorate in criminal justice. On return to Thailand, he took a job lecturing at the police academy in Chiang Mai. Here he met his wife, one of the daughters of his superiors, and after marrying her, Thaksin shot up the ranks.
Alongside his work in the police, he used his family’s capital to start several unsuccessful businesses, opening a silk shop, a cinema and an apartment complex among others. After successive failures, Thaksin bought several computers and communication devices and began renting them to the Chiang Mai police force. Despite the clear conflict of interest, business deals like this were commonplace at the time. In 1986 he founded Advanced Info Service (AIS), initially as a computer rental business. By 1987 he had resigned from the police force to focus on the company.
Thaksin had perfectly positioned himself for the electronics and communications boom of the 90s. Pagers, fax machines, colour televisions, mobile phones and personal computers were all entering the consumer market and Thaksin was there on the ground floor, consolidating his business into the behemoth Shin Corporation. Shin Corp also maintained the communications network that sustained these personal electronic devices and what’s more is that they produced content like television shows and ads as well. Thaksin was able to shrewdly form a vertically integrated business, quickly making him one of Thailand’s leading tycoons.
Entry into Politics
Thailand’s political landscape in the mid-1990s was the epitome of ‘end of history’ politics. After decades of iron-fisted cold war regimes, the kingdom was having a hard time adjusting to the pitfalls of parliamentary electoralism. The formerly insurgent Communist Party Thailand had been disbanded in the early 90s, abandoning the masses of the rural working class to wallow in political obscurity, while nationalist liberal parties jockeyed for control of the country in Bangkok. The Thai parliament was messy, to say the least, with parties forming and disbanding within the space of a few years, constantly switching leaders and rife with defecting MPs.
It was also an economic boom time for Southeast Asia, this in large part contributed to Thaksin’s meteoric rise in wealth. Thailand was rapidly industrialising as capital from the USA and Japan poured into Bangkok, building skyscrapers, factories and major highways. Bangkok was flooded with fresh labour, mostly the rural poor, coming to fill places on the assembly lines.
For those who could harness these streams of capital, it seemed like a golden age was on the horizon. The rich were becoming unimaginably richer than ever before, while the lingering threat of communism, both domestically and overseas, had been utterly eviscerated.
And so, Thaksin took a familiar path, from business tycoon to political actor. Initially, he was taken under the wing of the far-right reactionary populist Chamlong Srimuang in 1994. Here Thaksin learned how to wield political office, quickly becoming a master of coalition building. By 1997 he was Deputy PM under the short-lived premiership of another reactionary, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.
Tom Yum Gung
The massive streams of wealth coming into Bangkok was starting to become problematic for Thailand’s export-driven economy. Unbeknownst to many, it was creating a financial bubble. This meant that when, in June 1997, the Thai government decided to float the Thai Baht on the foreign exchange markets, it started a chain reaction, leading to one of the largest financial crashes in Asian history, bringing the short-lived golden age of Thai free-market capitalism to a screeching halt.
Capital flight began immediately and overnight Thailand was racked with masses of foreign debt. The Thai Baht’s value was almost immediately cut in half, while the stock market in Bangkok fell by 75%. The panic spread across Asia, particularly to South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines and Indonesia.
Mass layoffs occurred in all sectors, personal savings were wiped out and families selling their basic possessions on the streets of Bangkok became a common sight. The capital was quickly emptied of the rural working-class workers who had once flocked to the city’s factories and construction sites. Many returned to the poverty of their villages, others committed suicide.
The IMF immediately arrived with nearly 20 billion dollars in bailout money, of course with strings attached. Much of the money went into paying off the foreign investors who lost capital in the collapse, while the Thai working class were left to fend for themselves.
The suffering of the working class was compounded by the lack of any existing significant welfare state. During the height of the cold war, the American government pumped billions of dollars into the Thai economy, much of which was channelled into poverty alleviation programs designed specifically to cut off support for the insurgent communist party and cement the monarchy-military alliance.
However, once the communist threat was removed, the Americans lost interest and the Thai state gradually allowed the market to take over the economy rendering social welfare virtually non-existent by the 90s. What little programs remained were marred by underfunding and corruption. This meant that the post-crash emergency austerity measures hit an already decimated working class with extra force.
PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s government was disbanded and Thaksin took up a part-time position as an advisor to the infamous American private equity company, The Carlyle Group.
Thai Rak Thai
Meanwhile, amid the economic chaos, in 1998, Thaksin formed the Thai Rak Thai party (TRT). At first, this appeared to be yet another elite billionaire politician having a crack at becoming PM. Using his skills as a coalition builder, Thaksin pieced together the foundations for his party with a wide range of political actors from military officers, elite business people, former communist insurgents and western-educated academics.
The political calculation of Thai Rak Thai was ingenious. Thaksin aimed to appeal to the overlooked rural working class, who for the past several decades, had been suffering in near silence. Under the previous system of liberal capitalist party politics, their masses of votes were squandered and electoral mandate significantly underutilised.
TRT’s former communist insurgents turned academics, guided by elite economists, helped inspire a populist manifesto that promised universal access to healthcare, a three-year debt moratorium for farmers and one million baht of locally managed development funds for all Thai villages.
Thaksin’s communications empire became a lethal electoral tool, weaponized to spread the party’s message across the kingdom. Despite being part of the political and business elite, Thaksin, through his Northern Thai background, was able to present himself as a caring pragmatist who would fight the notorious Bangkok elite on behalf of the rural peasantry. Elections were held in 2001 which TRT won by a landslide, having formed coalitions with several mid-sized parties and absorbing several smaller ones.
Their opposition, The Democratic party, was left humiliated. The Democratic Party was composed of a staunchly urban middle-class Bangkok demographic, who, throughout Thai parliamentary history, punched well above their weight in elections thanks to the support of the reliably reactionary Southern provinces and were favoured by the military-royalist coalition.
What happened in the following 5 years is often cited as an economic miracle pulled off by Thaksin and his coalition. With TRT’s massive mandate they immediately got to work delivering on their manifesto promises, while also paying back the IMF loans.
Through shrewd economic planning, TRT was able to rapidly reinvigorate the Thai economy from complete collapse to becoming one of the fastest-growing and most stable economies in the region. Thaksin’s approach was almost akin to that of Peron in Argentina. He combined leftist inspired social democratic welfare programs with neo-liberal privatisation and international trade simultaneously, sometimes even within the same policy.
For example, the most celebrated policy of TRT today is the 30 Baht health care system, sometimes inaccurately referred to as universal healthcare. It was essentially universal healthcare but with a classic Thaksin capitalist twist whereby patients paid just 30 Baht each time they visited the hospital or doctors, be it for a mild fever or a major operation. This is classic Thaksinomics, to provide easy and affordable access to a social program, but at a cost, albeit a very low one.
Many of the policies were also highly localised, allowing local municipalities or villages to choose how to spend micro-credit grants, with extremely low-interest rates. However, these certainly weren’t handouts, the local municipalities were encouraged to spend the money on programs that would see a return in investments. Many chose to expand school bus routes, invest in local agriculture or refurbish markets– programs that would generate revenue in the long run. This also had the added benefit of allowing agency for areas that had previously been excluded from decision making, rather than having decisions imposed on them from Bangkok.
One general theme of TRT’s development policies was investing outside of Bangkok. For decades the megacity had served as a black hole, drawing in the wealth from the rest of the nation with very little making it the other direction. While Bangkok had a sky train and highrise motorways, other major urban areas like Chiang Mai didn’t even have a functioning bus system. TRT poured money into these non-Bangkok urban areas, with major infrastructure investment (via private companies), which not only developed the cities but also built modern roads and transit systems between them– much to the chagrin of the Bangkok elite.
These domestic economic policies, along with several international free trade agreements, including with China, allowed Thaksin to pull off his economic miracle. Between 2001-2006, nationwide poverty fell by 10%, with incomes in Isaan (the poorest region) rising by 46%, access to healthcare grew from around 70% to 96%, and simultaneously Thailand was able to pay back its IMF loans two years ahead of schedule, a feat that is almost unheard of globally. TRT, despite its huge investment projects, produced a comfortable fiscal surplus for 2003 onwards, increasing GDP from 4.9 trillion baht to 7.1 trillion. Within 5 years Thaksin had revitalised the country, turning an economy on its knees into a roaring “tiger economy”.
Despite the economic miracle, Thaksin’s first term was far from uncontroversial. His rurally focused policies drew immense ire from the Bangkok middle class, who had a historic revulsion for the peasantry. Many considered it unfair that Thaksin could garner such staunch political support from people who should have little to no political agency in the first place. They interpreted his policies as buying the support of the working class with their tax money, and while they still credited him with the economic upturn, they feared that it would eventually come at their expense.
Even among some of those in the lower ends of the working class, Thaksin was despised. During the economic crisis, drug use had skyrocketed and Thaksin’s response included some key policies that were rather Reaganesque. He began his premiership with a campaign to rid “every square inch of the country” of drugs within three months. This campaign included arrest quotas for drug users, and police officers who failed to meet their quotas were punished. This resulted in untold thousands of innocent people being caught up in the crackdown, furthermore, sentences for suspected drug use were made far harsher, leading to mass overcrowding in the country’s prisons.
Officials were encouraged to turn a blind eye to any improprieties by the police, which led to numerous extrajudicial killings. The policies were so harsh that they even drew criticism from the UN and Human Rights Watch, who reported that 2,275 people were extrajudicially executed during the initial 3-month campaign, leading to the famous Thaksin quote “UN, you are not my father”.
Thaksin also rode the wave of post 9/11 Islamophobia. He sent 400 troops for the invasion of Iraq, granting Thailand the official status of Major Non-Nato Ally. He also violently clamped down on the separatist movement in the 3 “deep south” provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat, which are predominantly Muslim-Malay and have been agitating for independence from Thailand since WWII. The clampdown led to the infamous Tak Bai massacre in which 85 mostly peaceful protestors were killed, inflaming tensions in the region and leading to a huge uptick in attacks against the Thai state.
These controversies, however, only affected a relatively small chunk of the voting population. For the vast majority of Thais, the early 2000s was a boom era, which saw their quality of life and opportunities rapidly increase. For many, the demonisation of drug users, Muslims and the Bangkok middle class was celebrated, if at least tolerated. Thaksin had essentially made a deal with a huge portion of the population that had been previously overlooked. By endowing them with a sense of political agency on a local level for the first time, in exchange, he received their support and a national mandate without demanding a violent insurgency against capital or the state, as had been the case with the Communist Party.
Thailand is well known for its military coups. Since the 1930s when parliamentary democracy first appeared in the country, there have been around 13 successful coups, a record unmatched by any other country. Notoriously, up until 2005, no elected Prime Minister had ever survived a full term in office without being evicted by the military. However, when the 2005 elections arrived Thaksin appeared to be untouchable. During that year’s campaign, his message notably shifted from the previous election. Having already delivered on his lofty economic promises, he enveloped himself in a more culturally oriented campaign, speaking the Kham Mueng language of Northern Thailand on the campaign trail and doing events with local country-pop artists. This worked to distance himself from the elites of Bangkok. The message from Thai Rak Thai also took a slightly different tone, TRT’s messaging now essentially boiled down to: “We delivered for you over the past 4 years, now reward us with your vote”.
TRT swept the country, vastly outperforming even their previous record win. Thaksin garnered almost complete support from the rural peasants and urban working class, as well as many elites in big business and academia. His years in the police force as well as his military connections began to rival even the most powerful figure in the kingdom, self censor.
Thailand’s politics of the 90s were now consigned to history. The myriad of parties jockeying for power had fallen largely into two camps, Thai Rak Thai and The Democrat Party, one vaguely left and one vaguely right, both liberal capitalists, but with radically different demographic bases. Post-2005, The Democratic party looked to be a spent force with little to no popular appeal, other than amongst the relatively small Bangkok elite and down the southern peninsula.
However, in many ways, Thaksin was to become a victim of his own success. TRT’s huge parliamentary majority immediately started breeding problems, those in the embarrassed Democratic Party camp accused Thaksin of a parliamentary dictatorship, insisting that such a large majority excluded political plurality between parties. Others simply refused to accept TRT’s popularity, accusing them of vote-buying, both figuratively and literally. On the latter, there was without a doubt corruption, nepotism and cronyism in Thailand under TRT, however, this was hardly new to the country, though Thaksin’s opponents certainly started to notice it a lot more once TRT cemented power.
There was also increased scrutiny over the activities of Shin Corp and Thaksin’s business empire, much of which he had held onto or transferred to close allies after becoming PM— not an uncommon strategy to separate political aspirations from potential conflicts of interest. There were several incidents of Thaksin’s businesses or former businesses being awarded lucrative state contracts, as well as cases of his companies selling their property to state development projects above the market rate. Although again, this was hardly a seismic shift in the nepotism that characterised Thai business and politics when compared to previous governments.
Furthermore, factions within the military were growing increasingly uneasy with the level of Thaksin’s power. Thailand had been governed by a military-monarchy coalition for generations, now a new column was threatening that structure. Meanwhile, King Bhumiphol self censor that Thaksin had self censor power and self censor that TRT self censor censor but self censor censor know. It was widely understood in Bangkok political circles that censor wanted to self censor Thaksin, as self censor to the censor established power of the censor. This was detailed in self censor‘s book ‘A censor for the censor ‘.
Coup – 999
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) were formed as an alliance of activists, politicians and media personalities united in their bid to depose Thaksin, they quickly became a thorn in the side of his government. Most were Democratic Party loyalists, but the movement drew in some surprising supporters, such as the old working-class hero Nga Caravan, a former communist insurgent folk singer, as well as Somkiat Pongpaiboon, a well-known activist for Assembly of The Poor, a pressure group that fought for peasant farmers rights.
This is to say that while the majority of Thaksin’s critics were reactionary, there was also a demographic that criticised his policies on other grounds, particularly concerning parliamentary procedure, the ongoing drugs war and violence in the ‘deep south’. Few of these non-reactionary critics, however, foresaw the long term consequences of the alliance. Still, today, challenging Thaksin from the left presents a difficult approach, as no politician in Thai history can claim to have done more to address the basic material conditions of the working class than him.
Rumours of a coup began circulating in Bangkok immediately after the election. However, it took time before the gears were set in motion. On 20th July 2006, around a hundred middle-ranking army officers who were known supporters of Thaksin were reassigned by the army high command. In the media anti-Thaksin voices flooded all non-TRT loyalist stations, Thaksin was accused of being corrupt, anti-monarchy and beholden to foreign powers. Saprang Kalayanamitr, a high ranking army commander, gave an interview in which he stated that Thai politics was below standard and that Thailand had a false democracy.
In early September of 2006, there was almost certainly an assassination attempt. Bangkok police, loyal to Thaksin, arrested five members of Thailand’s counter-insurgency command, after intercepting one of the officers with a bomb in a car, allegedly targeting the prime minister’s residence.
In mid-September, Thaksin travelled to New York for a session at the United Nations. The Thai military is well known for its superstitious inclinations… and so on the 19th day of the 9th month of the Buddhist year 2549, at 9 PM, Channel 5 ceased scheduled programming and aired songs written by King Bhumibol. At 11 PM the channel came back on air and Thawinan Khongkran (formerly Miss Asia 1987) announced that the military had Bangkok and the surrounding areas under their control. Thaksin had been deposed while watching the coup unfold on a TV screen in his New York hotel room.
The following decade would be marred by the 2006 coup. Charges of corruption were brought against Thaksin and members of his extended family, as well as political allies. Bizarrely, it was at this point that he decided to buy Manchester City football club, supposedly he threw himself into the nitty-gritty of managing a premier league team. His time at City, however, was short-lived, as his assets were frozen and he was forced to sell.
On New Year’s Eve of that year, several bombs rocked Bangkok in 9 separate locations, killing 3 people. Thaksin supporters were blamed by the military, though no one was ever prosecuted.
Despite initially declaring his intention to fight the charges in Bangkok, by 2008 he obtained Montenegrin citizenship through the country’s economic citizenship program, eventually settling in Dubai.
Back in Bangkok, the country’s chaotic political decade was underway. In TRT there were mass defections as many MPs saw the writing on the wall. In 2007, the party was disbanded on grounds of bribery, and all of TRT’s remaining MPs were banned from taking part in politics.
Meanwhile, Thaksin’s loyal supporters began organising, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) was formed, members wore red shirts so as to contrast themselves from their political enemies The PAD, who wore yellow shirts. The Red – Yellow divide and their pitched battles would become emblematic of Thai politics. Broadly speaking, on one side, the rugged rural peasants, on the other the urban elite.
In 2008, The Democratic Party, the party with no popular support or mandate, was essentially handed governance by the military, reigning for 3 years. During the Democratic Party regime, mass red shirt protests erupted nationwide, leading to the famous occupation and subsequent siege of the Bangkok financial district. The occupation came to a bloody end a month later when the military moved in to clear the protestors, killing at least 79 civilians including innocent bystanders and medics.
Thaksin surrogates would also become a feature of Thai politics. After TRT was disbanded, its members regrouped as the People’s Power Party (PPP), later disbanded and again reformed as the Phua Thai Party. The leadership of these parties were all composed of Thaksin loyalists, and in the case of the latter party, his sister Yingluck who was Prime Minister from 2011 to 2014. These parties won every election they ran in, but were constantly bogged down by court cases, the threat of military coups and yellow shirt agitation. The great fear among yellow shirts and the Bangkok elite was that these Thaksin proxies were paving the way for his return, as such they had to be stopped at any cost.
Yellow shirt tactics were brazen, to say the least, and comparatively to the red shirts, they faced little repercussion from the supposedly neutral court apparatuses. The yellow shirts knew that their politics could never fairly win at a general election, as such their calculus seemed to be to prevent any fair elections in the country and shut out Thaksin’s allies at every opportunity. Any Thaksin related action, both business and politics, at the local and national level, was fought tooth and nail, in the streets and in the courts.
Eventually, the yellow shirts gave up on the electoral process in 2014, when, knowing they were bound to lose yet again to Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, they completely boycotted the general election and blocked polling stations to render the vote invalid. This set the stage for the 2014 coup, when current PM, General Prayut Chan O’Cha deposed Yingluck’s administration, which was already deeply embroiled in ongoing corruption cases, and took power before appointing an unelected military council.
The 2014 coup was, retrospectively, the final nail in the coffin for Thaksin’s political project. The Bangkok elite had been slowly bleeding Thaksin dry, both his supporters and his parties. By 2014 the Red Shirt’s organising capacity was significantly depleted, and while his proxy Phua Thai party were still relevant as a parliamentary force, all of their energy, verve and swagger was lost.
The glory days of Thaksinomics were long gone. The past decade of political instability had wreaked havoc on the Thai economy, losing many of the gains made under TRT. Meanwhile, political battles became centred on the factional Urban-Rural divide from a more cultural angle, rather than the economic and political empowerment of TRT’s early years.
Undoubtedly, there was corruption under Thaksin’s government and an argument could be made that his massive parliamentary majority went against the spirit of pluralist democracy. His war on drugs and brutal mistreatment of Muslims in the southern provinces were horrifying. However, in reality, it was none of these sins that led to his exile. Thaksin’s real crime was becoming too successful, to the point of potentially challenging the deeply entrenched powers of the existing elite and their century-old political patronage system. As such Thaksin’s power had to be completely wiped out, along with any vestiges of support
Thaksin was a deeply flawed miracle worker. A working-class hero, even if his championing of that class was done solely for cynical political gaming. Thai Rak Thai undoubtedly improved the lives of millions of the kingdom’s poorest residents, while simultaneously brutally attacking its most downtrodden.
Today, Thaksin, who now often goes by ‘Tony Woodsome’, clings on to relevancy, occasionally hopping on Facebook Live and other social media platforms to share his thoughts, or to receive homage from Phua Thai MPs. However, the new generation of activists have little time for Thaksin or the TRT dream. His economic miracle is long forgotten and his social capital is nearly depleted. Some loyalists in the old Red Shirt movement still dream of a triumphant return, but as Thai democracy moves onto new battles it’s likely no more than a dream.