Former Thai PM Thaksin Freed on Parole After 6 Months

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Former Thai PM Thaksin Freed on Parole After 6 Months

As controversy over his parole simmers, attention turns to what influence the controversial former leader will have over Thai politics.

Former Thai PM Thaksin Freed on Parole After 6 Months

A supporter waits in front of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s residence before Thaksin was released on parole, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Credit: AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

On Sunday, Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was released on parole from a police hospital in Bangkok, bringing a two-decade-long political conflict to a close. The billionaire former leader, who returned from self-imposed exile last August, has spent the past six months in a hospital bed serving time for corruption-related offenses dating from his years in power.

As The Associated Press reported, Thaksin, for years a spectral presence in Thai politics from his self-exile in Dubai, “was seen wearing a neck brace, a sling on his right arm, and a surgical mask inside one of the cars in a convoy that left the Police General Hospital just before sunrise.” He was accompanied by his two daughters on his way to Baan Chan Song La, the Shinawatra family residence in western Bangkok.

His daughter Paetongtarn later posted a photo to Instagram of the 74-year-old sitting by the pool at the family’s home, neck brace and sling still in place. “After not breathing air and seeing the sun on the outside for 180 days, and not being back to this house for 17 years … Dad came to sit outside like this. He sat there for quite some time,” she wrote in the accompanying post, along with the hashtag #finallyhome and a heart emoji.

As the AP reported, Thaksin will still have to report to parole officers every month for the remainder of his sentence – that is, until August. He will also face certain travel restrictions, though officials have said that he is not required to wear an ankle monitor due to his age and health conditions.

After being elected twice by considerable margins, in 2001 and 2005, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and left Thailand for good two years later to avoid facing prison on corruption charges that he claims were politically motivated. Thaksin then returned to Thailand last August and was taken into custody to begin serving his eight-year prison sentence, on the same day that his party Pheu Thai returned to power.

Almost immediately after his arrival, Thaksin was transferred to a police hospital after complaining of a variety of health complaints, including chest tightness and high blood pressure. The following month, his sentence was reduced to one year by a royal pardon, paving the way for his release on parole on the weekend.

Thaksin’s release was cheered by his supporters, who gathered outside the Shinawatra residence with signs welcoming him home. Supporter Peemai Sirikul told Al Jazeera that Thaksin’s release was a case of “mission accomplished.” “He shouldn’t have been punished as he did nothing wrong – it’s because of the coup d’état,” she said.

As I noted last week, Thaksin’s release brings to a close the two-decade-long political war between Thailand’s conservative establishment, clustered around the monarchy and armed forces, and Thaksin’s populist political machine, which was viewed as a threat to the established order.

Thaksin’s return, and the rapid reduction of his sentence, was made possible by the political realignment that followed last year’s general election, which saw the Pheu Thai Party eclipsed by a more progressive challenger, the Move Forward Party (MFP), which won the most seats. The MFP campaigned on an ambitious progressive platform that pledged to break up powerful monopolies, end military conscription, and – most explosively – amend the country’s severe royal defamation law. It was also closely associated with the youth-dominated protest movement of 2020 and 2021, which aired rare calls for the reform of the monarchy’s power and prerogatives, sending shocks through the conservative establishment.

When the military-appointed Senate closed ranks to block the MFP from forming the government, Pheu Thai stepped into the breach, forming a coalition under Srettha Thavisin, which included several conservative and military-backed parties that had long opposed Thaksin. As the Pheu Thai proved itself willing to work with its former foes, Thaksin’s return – once nearly unthinkable – became the precondition to a new alignment designed to marginalize the increasingly popular MFP.

The deal that allowed Thaksin’s rehabilitation “shows how the progressive politics of Thailand’s younger generation and the electorally successful Move Forward Party have left Thaksin and Pheu Thai behind,” Kevin Hewison, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, told the AP.

That said, significant segments of the Thai political spectrum have yet to catch up with the rapid realignment. This includes both royalists, who continue to view Thaksin with hostility, and liberals, who argue that the case reflects the double standards of the judicial system.

“Against the politics of Thailand and every law, we say he should go to the right jail,” Pichit Chaimongkol, the leader of the super-royalist Students and Peoples Network for Thailand Reform, told Al Jazeera. “We are asking for real justice from the government. Thaksin did some wrong things, so how does he have the right to be very comfortable and not go to jail?”

The MFP has also expressed skepticism about this turn of events. In a statement Sunday, the party acknowledged that Thaksin’s removal from power was unfair and undemocratic. But it also gave voice to the widespread (and frankly well substantiated) suspicion that Thaksin had received special treatment because of his wealth and political influence.

While this controversy is likely to offer a diluted after-echo of the Thaksin-centered conflict that has driven Thai politics over the past two decades, the question that arises now is what role the aging leader will play in Thai politics – and what influence he will exercise over Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s government.

Given his age and apparent ill health it is reasonable to suppose that Thaksin’s political energy has peaked and that his hunger for the battle has waned. As Hewison noted, it is also likely that Pheu Thai’s decision to join with military-backed parties to form a government has sapped its support among reform-minded Thais, who are now more likely to see the MFP as the party best placed to offer a genuinely democratic and progressive alternative.

Nonetheless, it is widely assumed that the Pheu Thai will once again fall under the control of its progenitor. In response to questioning from reporters on Sunday, both Srettha and his deputy prime minister were forced to emphasize that despite Thaksin’s return, there was only one prime minister. But the fact that they felt the need to make such clarifications testifies to the outsized role that the former telecoms magnate from Chiang Mai continues to play in his country’s political life.