Thaksin Shinawatra: divisive ex-PM looms over Thai politics


A supporter stands outside Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's family compound after he arrives from a police hospital after being granted parole, in Bangkok on Feb 18, 2024. - Reuters

BANGKOK: He was ousted in a coup more than 17 years ago and spent 15 of them in self-imposed exile, but even abroad Thailand's billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra cast a remarkable shadow over the kingdom's politics.

Loved and loathed in almost equal measure, the 74-year-old transformed Thai politics in the early 2000s with populist policies that won him and his party enduring loyalty from the rural masses.

But that success came at a cost: he was despised by Thailand's powerful elites and conservative establishment who saw his rule as corrupt, authoritarian and socially destabilising.

Ousted as prime minister by the army in 2006, Thaksin took himself into exile two years later but never stopped commenting on national affairs -- or meddling in them, according to his critics.

He pledged repeatedly to return, despite being convicted on graft and abuse-of-power charges in his absence.

Thaksin finally made good on his vow last August, touching down in Bangkok to a hero's welcome from his supporters.

He was immediately arrested and sentenced to eight years in jail, but was whisked to a police hospital within hours because of his health.

Within days, King Maha Vajiralongkorn had cut his term to one year, and on Sunday he returned to his Bangkok home.

The government said he was eligible for early release because of his age and health.

Thaksin was born on July 26, 1949, into one of the most prominent ethnic Chinese families in northern Chiang Mai province.

He served as a police officer before amassing a vast fortune founding a series of data networking and mobile telephone firms that would become telecoms giant Shin Corp.

In 1998, he launched his own political party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), and was elected prime minister in 2001, becoming the first premier to serve a full term.

With the economy on its knees from the Asian financial crisis, Thaksin promised to use his business savvy to rebuild and lift poor rural villagers out of poverty with his "Thaksinomics".

His "war on drugs", which Human Rights Watch says resulted in around 2,800 extrajudicial killings, brought international condemnation.

He was re-elected in a landslide victory in 2005, thanks to huge support from rural voters grateful for cash injections and debt relief.

The following year he was dogged by corruption allegations and mired in controversy over the tax-free sale of Shin Corp shares.

Months of mass protests culminated in the nullifying of elections, and in September 2006 army tanks rolled into Bangkok and toppled Thaksin's government while he was at the United Nations in New York.

Despite his Thai assets being frozen in 2007, he purchased Manchester City and later sold it for a sizeable profit to an Abu Dhabi-backed group -- thereby kickstarting the British football club's golden era of investment and success.

Thai Rak Thai was dissolved by court order after the 2006 coup, but eventually evolved into the Pheu Thai party, which brought Thaksin's sister Yingluck to power in 2011.

Thaksin is seen by many as the true master of Pheu Thai, which came second in May's general election and now leads a governing coalition.

Yingluck laboured under claims she was a Thaksin stooge and eventually, she too fell to a coup.

From exile in Dubai, divorced Thaksin regularly took to the Clubhouse social media platform under the moniker "Tony Woodsome" to address supporters in Thailand.

He threw his weight behind his daughter Paetongtarn as she took up the Pheu Thai mantle and led the party's election campaign.

Thaksin's decision to return came after Pheu Thai made what many see as a Faustian bargain to go into coalition with military-backed parties -- including the ex-army chief who ousted Yingluck in 2014.

The party formally took office on the day Thaksin landed back in the kingdom, prompting many to suspect a deal had been made to grant him leniency.

The party insisted this was not the case, but Thaksin returned home on Sunday having seemingly not seen the inside of a jail cell. - AFP

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