Thaksin Shinawatra is the most controversial figure in modern Thai history, since the entire political debate in Thailand revolves around him. Therefore, in order to understand the country’s current political situation, one must understand Thaksin’s legacy. A billionaire businessman from Northern Thailand, Thaksin served as Prime Minister between 2001 and 2006, before his exile to Dubai.
While Thaksin’s policies drew equal parts praise and criticism, his economic decisions helped Thailand bounce back from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Measures included the implementation of locally managed microfinance development funds, low-interest agricultural loans, state investment in agriculture, and promotion of small and medium enterprises. Thaksin’s economic policies inspired large infrastructure projects such as the expansion of Bangkok’s mass transportation network and the construction of Suvanabhumi Airport. In addition, Thaksin initiated sweeping healthcare changes, by subsidizing universal healthcare to increase its availability to the poor and empowering local governors via the largest administrative reform seen in Thailand since 1897. These reforms primarily benefited the poor, particularly those living in rural areas in northeastern Thailand. As a result, northeastern Thailand became Thaksin’s political stronghold. In short, the GDP of Thailand increased 40% during his tenure, poverty was halved, the state generated fiscal surpluses on a regular basis, and Thailand repaid its IMF loans two years ahead of schedule.
Thaksin is also known for his security policies, most notably the war on drugs and the crackdown against the insurgency in southern Thailand. Following King Bhumibol’s speech on December 4, 2002, the government launched a set of reforms aimed at eradicating drug use in the country. The Thaksin administration also faced a resurgence of violence in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, which consisted mainly of ethnic Malay. In response, Thaksin issued an Emergency Decree and stepped up police and military presence in the south.
Though most Thais benefited from Thaksin’s policies, the former Prime Minister was increasingly criticized as his term progressed. When Thaksin attended the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2006, the Thai military staged a coup. He was widely accused of nepotism, aiding businesses owned by his family and relatives through policy decisions. He also faced criticism for his human rights record related to the war on drugs and the management of the insurgency in the south. According to Human Rights Watch, More than half of the victims had no involvement in drug operations. Thaksin’s administration was also implicated in the alleged abduction, torture and execution of Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in March 2004; the Kru Se Mosque incident,which occurred in Pattani in April of 2004, when the Thai Military stormed a building and killed 32 protesters; and the killing of 84 Muslim protestors in Tak Bai in October 2004 during the evacuation of peaceful protesters by truck. All 84 died of asphyxia, crushing, or overheating.
Thaksin was found guilty of corruption and sentenced in abstentia to two years prison in 2008, and has lived in exile ever since. Despite his absence, the Pheu Thai Party, led by his sister Yingluck, remains dominant. However, the opposition accuses Yingluck of being a “puppet,” implementing policies aimed at permitting her brother’s return to Thailand. Those fears materialized in November 2013, when the Yingluck administration tried to pass a widespread amnesty law that would pardon all wrongdoings committed since 2004. That would have effectively nullified the corruption charges against Thaksin and allowing him to return to Thailand. In reaction, the opposition, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, took to the streets in Bangkok to demand the resignation of the Pheu Thai government and its replacement by an unelected People’s Council to oversee political reforms.
The current political situation in Thailand indicates an extreme polarity among the population regarding Thaksin, a rift so wide that King Bhumibol failed to reconcile it. Thaksin remains widely popular in northern Thailand, where rural populations benefited from his economic policies and counter-poverty initiatives. At the same time, Thais living in the south and in urban areas loathe him as a result of his management of the southern insurgency and his corruption. It seems as though there will be no political peace in Thailand as long as there is no consensus regarding the policies and legacy of Thaksin Shinawatra.