Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand today after 15 years in self-exile, on the same day that a party affiliated with him plans to form a new government.
According to The Associated Press, Thaksin flew via private jet from Singapore and landed at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport around 9 a.m. local time. After arriving, Thaksin walked out of the airport’s private jet terminal with his daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who led the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) at a general election in May. He then greeted a crowd of red-shirted supporters, some of whom had been camping out since the night before.
“After walking out,” the AP reported, “Thaksin placed a flower wreath and prostrated before a portrait of Thailand’s king and queen at the gate of the terminal.”
“It’s time for me to be with the Thai people,” he told Nikkei Asia on Tuesday morning at Singapore’s Seletar Airport, prior to boarding his flight to Thailand.
After being elected twice by considerable margins, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and left Thailand for good in 2008 to avoid facing prison on corruption charges that he claims were politically motivated. Since then, he has made numerous promises to return to Thailand – 19 by the Thai Enquirer’s count – without them ever eventuating, including just prior to the May 14 election.
Shortly after touching down and greeting his supporters, the 74-year-old former leader was detained by police. According to Reuters, he was set to be taken directly to the Supreme Court for a hearing, before being transferred to prison.
The return of the divisive PM comes on the same day as Parliament is set to convene and vote to confirm Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin as the country’s next prime minister. Thaksin has previously said his decision to return has nothing to do with the expected vote in Parliament, but the timing makes this very hard to credit.
Indeed, it can be argued that Thaksin’s return is only possible given the realignments that have taken place in Thai politics since the May election, which saw the emergence of a more radical and popular alternative to Pheu Thai.
At the May 14 election, the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won a surprise victory, winning 150 seats of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives, ahead of the PTP’s 141, on a radical platform that included pledges to reform the military, abolish conscription, and break up the country’s powerful business monopolies. Most explosive was the MFP’s pledge to amend the lese-majeste law, which criminalizes criticisms of the monarchy and the royal family, an institution that sacralizes Thailand’s heavy concentrations of wealth and privilege.
This prompted the conservative forces – including the military-appointed Senate – to block the MFP’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat from the prime ministership, and eventually forced the party to drop out of the coalition that it had formed with Pheu Thai in a bid to end nearly a decade of military and military-backed rule under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Yesterday, however, Pheu Thai announced plans to form a new government with an 11-party coalition that includes two pro-military parties affiliated with Prayut, who in 2014 led the coup that toppled a Pheu Thai government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
It is hard to exaggerate the radical nature of the change. For the past 15 years, Thaksin and his various parties – Pheu Thai is only the latest – have been the bête-noire of Thailand’s conservative elites. In addition to the two military coups of 2006 and 2014, the establishment has employed all manner of legal and political trickery to frustrate and unseat Thaksinite governments that prior to this year’s election had won every Thai poll since 2001. Over the past three months, it has employed the very same tactics against the MFP, in order to frustrate its attempts to form a government.
Indeed, following the MFP’s success at the recent election, there is a sense that Thaksin and the PTP are very much the lesser of two evils. As I noted last month, “the mere fact that Thaksin’s rehabilitation is now palatable to the Thai conservative establishment indicates how threatened the latter is by the rise of the MFP.”
In some ways, the reconciliation makes sense. The Thai conservative jihad against Thaksin was always based on the implicit threat that his popularity posed to the traditional power elite. With the emergence of a radical progressive party whose anti-establishment orientation is explicit, conservatives have come to see Thaksin as what he has probably always been: a man with whom they can do business. If the self-exiled PM posed as a tribune of democracy, and was seen as such by his supporters, it was because of how consistently his electoral mandates were frustrated by conservative machinations. But he has never ceased being a pragmatic figure, especially compared to the principled young representatives of Move Forward, who chose to enter opposition rather than jettison the policies that got them elected.
All that remains is for this political realignment to be consummated by a royal pardon that quashes Thaksin’s convictions and allows him to walk free. Caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam stated last month that once in custody, Thaksin can request a royal pardon – one that would likely be granted after a face-saving period of incarceration in presumably relatively comfortable environs.
If, when, and how this happens remains to be seen. The first hurdle is for Pheu Thai to secure the appointment of Srettha Thavisin, or another party candidate, as prime minister. The second is then to reach an intra-elite agreement regarding Thaksin’s rehabilitation, and the scope of the political role, if any, that he will be allowed to play in his twilight years.
Both, especially the latter, may fall prey to a potential residual conservative leeriness about Thaksin and his supporters. After such a prolonged and bitter struggle, it may be hard for some on both sides to lay aside old enmities. On Thaksin’s side, too, Pheu Thai officials and “red shirt” partisans have renounced their support for Pheu Thai in protest of its new concord with the military-backed parties that it once staunchly opposed. This seems to portend a cleavage in the party between those who support Thaksin’s populist agenda, and those who support democratic reform more broadly, who may well now flock to the MFP.
In one sense, Thaksin’s return marks an end to one phase of Thai politics – one dominated by the battle between the Thai conservative establishment and the populist movement built by Thaksin. Seen from broader perspective, however, the battle is still raging, even if some of the players have changed.