Thaksin Shinawatra and the Rise of Political Nihilism in Thailand

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Thaksin Shinawatra and the Rise of Political Nihilism in Thailand

As expected, the newly rehabilitated former prime minister is again flaunting his political influence – to Thailand’s detriment.

Thaksin Shinawatra and the Rise of Political Nihilism in Thailand

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, center, visits Rajapruek Royal Park in Chiang Mai province, Thailand, Thursday, March 14, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Anuthep Cheysakron

“Political nihilism” may sound completely alien to the Thais, but its essence perfectly captures what’s going on inside Thailand’s political scene.

I often come across this term while reading about American politics ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Despite lacking a concrete definition, political nihilism is inherently negative. It could describe a situation in which politicians will do anything, however detrimental to the country, to advance their agendas. Grim political and socio-economic realities then inflame public disillusionment, disengagement, radical skepticism, or even a turn toward anarchism.

The nihilistic embrace of chaos that seems to have proliferated in the United States isn’t yet a trend in Thailand. Nevertheless, for a country accustomed to a vicious cycle of political instability and coups, Thais are no strangers to feelings of hopelessness and resignation. I’d further argue that the overwhelming presence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the unofficial patriarch of the Pheu Thai Party, the largest component of the ruling coalition, has sent the country into a downward spiral. Here’s why.

First, Thaksin has become the embodiment of institutional injustice and double standards. There’s little need to recount his smooth return from self-exile and release from detention, which serve as glaring manifestations of Thailand’s politicization of justice. That said, it is crucial to underscore that the Thai public has never witnessed such coordinated support from key institutions, including previous and current administrations, and various state agencies like the Department of Corrections and the Police General Hospital, for a political figure.

Thaksin’s post-detention actions have only added fuel to the fire. Instead of laying low to avoid criticism, paroled Thaksin wasted no time traveling to major provinces in Thailand’s north and south. He was seen visiting development sites and mingling with political bigwigs, high-ranking local officials, and businesspeople, effectively flaunting his regained influence.

With Thaksin’s undisguised disregard for ethical considerations, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect his role in promoting Pichit Chuenban, the Shinawatras’ trusted lawyer, infamous for attempting to bribe Supreme Court officials, in Thailand’s recent cabinet reshuffle.

Second, Thaksin isn’t afraid to engage unilaterally with foreign actors to pursue his political and business aims. One would expect Thaksin to at least limit his “power projection” to the domestic sphere, but that expectation has proven to be entirely off the mark. Since his release in February, Thaksin has already met with former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, and factions fighting Myanmar’s military junta, apparently seeking a mediation role in that country’s conflict.

All of this reflects poorly on Thailand. Once a powerful individual without an official role or mandate gets involved, it’s difficult to dismiss allegations of conflicts of interest. These concerns arise in tandem with growing doubts about what exactly the kingdom’s national interests are, who really conducts foreign policy, and whether it serves broader regional interests.

In Myanmar’s case, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has shown increased unity in its approach and, as Thailand’s security expert Panitan Wattanayagorn has stressed, any new informal initiative should complement established formal frameworks. Thaksin’s murky, casual, and arguably late entry into the Myanmar conflict – apparently without a comprehensive understanding of its complexity and increasingly zero-sum nature – is likely to be as fruitful as a tree in the desert and will only complicate the operations of foreign policy and security practitioners.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is already struggling to set his leadership apart from Thaksin’s influence. Now, the freshly restructured Foreign Ministry led by Thaksin’s close associate, Maris Sangiampongsa, faces the same challenge. And I fear that Maris’ statement expressing comfort with Thaksin’s Myanmar intervention hasn’t made a good impression on anyone beyond Thaksin’s circle.

Third, Thaksin’s return has been accompanied by a rise in political gaslighting. To be fair, Thaksin isn’t personally engaging in public gaslighting. But his approval empowers those who are, including his daughter, who officially leads Pheu Thai.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra recently called the independence of the Bank of Thailand (BOT) an “obstacle” to the resolution of the country’s economic problems. This has amplified Pheu Thai’s already relentless and public exertion of pressure on the BOT to lower interest rates and validate the government’s rhetoric that the Thai economy is in crisis, thus facilitating special borrowing for the controversial digital wallet handout. This level of political encroachment on the central bank is unprecedented even by global standards.

While Paetongtarn has the right to criticize the BOT, her assertion is incredibly bold. Central bank’s independence is a common norm worldwide, and one that must be safeguarded according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). To quote the IMF, “central bank independence matters for price stability – and price stability matters for consistent long-term growth.”

Further lending credibility to the BOT, experts generally agree with BOT governor Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput’s stance that Thailand’s economic woes are rooted in structural deficiencies, and they continue to question how Pheu Thai’s stimulus package will “solve” anything at all. Indeed, the party hasn’t provided a compelling justification.

The problem is that there are certainly voices swayed by Paetongtarn’s message, which will cement the narrative depicting the elitist BOT – filled with unelected technocrats – as an institution indifferent to the well-being of the common people.

As things stand, Thaksin’s dominance looks unstoppable. Military-conservative forces are now scattered, with influential factions aiding Thaksin and anti-Thaksin ones fading away. The reformist Move Forward Party remains attractive – and perhaps the only choice left – for disillusioned voters, as evidenced by recent polls. Still, as I wrote earlier this year, Move Forward’s leadership also has ties to Thaksin. This is something that warrants attention.

Looking at these discouraging circumstances, alas, one can only utter, “poor Thailand.”