What Thaksin Shinawatra’s Parole Says About Thai Politics

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

What Thaksin Shinawatra’s Parole Says About Thai Politics

The detained former PM’s persecution and rehabilitation have both reflected the use of the country’s administrative and legal system for political ends.

What Thaksin Shinawatra’s Parole Says About Thai Politics

A billboard with a message demanding that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife, Pojjaman Shinawatra, return to Thailand to stand trial in the corruption cases against them, in Bangkok, Thailand, September 3, 2008.

Credit: Depositphotos

Yesterday, Thailand’s jailed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was granted parole, as anticipated, paving the way for his release in the coming days.

The announcement was made by Justice Minister Tawee Sodsong ahead of a weekly Cabinet meeting in Bangkok, according to The Associated Press. Tawee said that the 74-year-old Thaksin, who last year returned from more than a decade of self-imposed exile, qualified for early release because he was in the eligible category of inmates who have serious illnesses, are disabled, or are aged over 70.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who hails from the Thaksinite Pheu Thai Party, confirmed the news in comments to reporters after the cabinet meeting. He said that the pardon had been granted in accordance with regulations.

“Once released, he will just be a normal citizen. What’s in the past is in the past. Everything went according to the law,” he said. He added, “I believe that Thaksin can give good advice to his daughter to serve the country.”

Thaksin’s parole represents a watershed in Thai politics. By sealing the former leader’s rehabilitation, it effectively draws a line under a two-decade-long political war between Thailand’s conservative establishment, clustered around the monarchy and the Royal Thai Army, and the populist political machine created by Thaksin after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, which was seen to pose a threat to this establishment.

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. Even then, many royalists began to view Thaksin as a sort of black hand, directing events in Thailand from his plush exile in Dubai.

Fortified by an army of “red shirt” supporters from rural parts of the north and northeast, Thaksin-aligned parties went on to win a string of elections, prompting the establishment to undertake a series of increasingly ludicrous maneuvers, from economically paralyzing anti-Thaksin protests to ludicrous legal rulings, to remove these governments from power. In 2014, the military lost patience and resorted to another coup, this time removing Thaksin’s sister Yingluck from power.

The beginning of the end came at last year’s general election, when a Thaksin-aligned party failed to win a plurality of voters for the first time since 2001. The Pheu Thai Party, led by Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn, was bested by the Move Forward Party (MFP), which promised an ambitious progressive platform that pledged to break up powerful monopolies, end military conscription, and – to royalists’ shock and horror – amend the country’s severe royal defamation law.

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 long known for their zealous opposition to Thaksin.

While the coalition was in many senses a marriage of convenience – with the MFP cast back into opposition, Pheu Thai could not form a government in any other way – its formation also appears to have cemented a new elite pact. With the MFP now the locus of opposition to established power, Pheu Thai had come to be seen less as a threat than as a bulwark against the MFP’s more radical demands. This pact created the political conditions for Thaksin’s return from self-exile and rapid rehabilitation.

The billionaire former leader touched down in Bangkok on August 22 and was taken into custody to begin serving his eight-year prison sentence. Almost immediately,  he 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. After yesterday’s parole announcement, he could be released in to the luxuriant expanses of his family’s Bangkok mansion as soon as this weekend.

There may be additional skirmishes yet to come – a lese-majeste charge from 2016 is still hanging over Thaksin’s head – but it is clear that a truce has been called and a new defensive line established.

To be sure, it may take Thai politics some time to catch up to such a sudden recalibration of alliances. As I noted yesterday, Thaksin’s parole has been opposed by figures on both sides of the Thai political spectrum: both royalist conservatives, who have struggled to accept the rehabilitation of a leader that they opposed for so many years, and progressives, who have complained about unequal treatment for the wealthy former leader. Opponents of the decision have promised to hold additional protests against the Justice Department’s decision.

Above all, the parole decision points to the ongoing politicization of the Thai legal and administrative system, and extends its long series of interventions into Thai politics on the side of elite interests.

That politically motivated charges should be quashed by political means is in some ways to be expected – and better, perhaps, than such charges being allowed to stand. But the fact that Thaksin has not spent a single night in prison, and that the charges against him, once the subject of such passionate conservative focus, have been so effortlessly rescinded, only underlines a fact that every politically aware Thai person understands: there is one set of rules for Thailand’s wealthy and powerful, and another for everyone else.