The day before I’m due to interview Somsri Hananuntasuk in steamy downtown Bangkok, mean-faced riot police crushed a public rally of red-shirted pro-government protesters and their yellow-shirted opponents. These days, thanks to mobile phone crowd sourcing, even small protests in this sprawling city of festering tensions fast morph into big and ugly confrontations. As it happened, luckily for the police, a massive electrical storm rained down on the parade, scattering demonstrators in all directions. Some ran for their lives, chased by stick- and shield- wielding police who managed, just as the heavens were opening, to snatch and drag away scores of citizens, more than a few badly bruised and bleeding.
The graphic media coverage that followed overnight set the scene for our conversation about the darling of the red shirts, Thaksin Shinawatra. Somsri Hananuntasuk knows her subject well. Former Chair of Amnesty International Thailand and ex-Director of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), now a prominent and widely-respected public figure, she begins with a surprise confession. ‘I cast my vote for Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. He was a fascinating figure: a wonderful new face, young, intelligent, a visionary businessman who didn’t come from the old political class. Many of us thought his business accomplishments meant he could succeed in modernising Thai politics.’
She goes on to explain that Shinawatra was an outsider, a rebel within the ruling oligarchy, the first top politician to hail from Chiang Mai province in the north of the country, near where the bulk of the Thai population live, many of them at or beneath the poverty line. ‘Shinawatra talked the language of these people. His opponent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was an Oxford graduate who spoke in generalisations, often so abstract that many poor citizens simply couldn’t understand what he was saying. From a modestly wealthy family, Shinawatra visited villages and temples. He learned to play the role of a populist. Especially in the north and north-eastern parts of the country, people felt they could learn things from him. He won their ears and touched their hearts.’
Home-grown populist überdemocrat he became, with transformative effects on Thailand’s society and politics. Shinawatra symbolised several faces of the new Asia of the 21st century. Outsiders know the basics of the man, and how be built his political dynasty. Somsri Hananuntasuk complicates the picture. She says that Shinawatra amassed a private fortune in real estate, satellite telecommunications, computers, paging services and cable television. He became a billionaire after founding Advanced Info Service (AIS), the country’s leading mobile phone operator. He drove hard bargains; the tycoon was not beyond swindling. He lived up to the meaning of his Thai surname: ‘routinely appropriate action’. As if determined to match the vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, Shinawatra bought a struggling English football team, Manchester City, whose fans on the terrace for a while adored him, despite patchy results and their inability to pronounce his name in club chants (they instead nicknamed him ‘Frank Sinatra’).
Somsri Hananuntasuk highlights Shinawatra’s sense of style, his rough humour, his knack for cultivating celebrity status, his powerful grip on the local telecommunications industry, his willingness in the early days of his political career to play the role of champion of new communications media. ‘He was a rich business guy, but he helped popularise computers and champion computer literacy among poor citizens. He was a capitalist who sided with some activists from the political left. Most NGOs never took his side. But he was among the world’s first supporters of Nicholas Negroponte’s One laptop Per Child project and before Thailand established an Election Commission he even rented out computers to help monitor elections.’
The political strategy of one computer, one vote paid off. Beginning with his appointment as Foreign Minister in 1994, Shinawatra stayed for nearly a decade at the top of Thai politics. He was the first prime minister to serve a full term. He stood for progress. Shinawatra claimed his poverty-reduction programmes made a difference. Through such schemes as the ‘One District, One Scholarship’ funded by the legalisation of the huge underground lottery system and village-managed micro-credit development funds, he supported the positive redistribution of wealth, the enhancement of life chances of the poor majority. His reforms sometimes had dramatic effects, as in the area of subsidised universal health care. ‘The 30 baht [one dollar] health care scheme introduced by Shinawatra silenced many of his critics’, Somsri Hananuntasuk explains. ‘Although it was resisted by doctors and hospital staff, and placed every medical facility under great pressure, it had the effect of raising awareness of the human rights of the poor. For 30 baht, women could now give birth in a hospital. Patients were entitled to receive heart surgery, treatment for lung cancer, or flu. Grassroots people were delighted.’
There were sinister sides to Shinawatra’s avowed leftism. Especially after his re-election in 2005, when the highest voter turnout in Thai history rewarded his Thais Love Thais (Thai Rak Thai) Party with a landslide victory, he stacked government ministries with his own women and men. ‘The administrative reforms were dubbed the ‘big bang’. In the name of streamlining bureaucracy, getting results and serving the majority of the people, he elevated his family members, often rewarding them with business contracts and political advantage. That his sister Yingluck is now Prime Minister is no coincidence. He set out to build a dynasty, what we call a political clan system.’ The macho man of the people began to tamper with the courts and fiddle with mainstream media. He cracked down on press freedoms and unlicensed community radio stations, launched defamation suits against critical journalists and kick-started a bloody assault on the Malay Muslim population in the southernmost provinces of the country. ‘Many of us began to feel that a strange new form of people’s dictatorship was being prepared. The feeling was reinforced by Shinawatra’s tightening links with the police. A former lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Thai Police, he won their support for declaring a ‘war’ on drugs. Aimed at the widespread trade in methamphetamines, known locally as ya ba, it turned out to be a campaign of extra-judicial murder of poor people. It was shoot-to-kill of ‘blacklisted’ traffickers. We human rights activists were shocked. Estimates vary, but perhaps 3,000 people lost their lives during the 90-day clampdown. Many victims reportedly had the same drugs in identical plastic bags planted on their bodies. Over a thousand of those killed had no links with the drug trade. It was frightening.’
The abuse of power by Shinawatra seemed almost to replay the worst fears of the Athenian philosopher Plato, the first great critic of democracy. More than 2,500 years ago, he blasted democracy as a decadent type of politics whose main dynamic is the appeal to ‘the people’ by clever demagogues who hail from the ruling class. Greeks had a term, which has since slipped out of use, to describe the whole process of demagogues grabbing power through the people. They called it democratisation (dēmokrateo).
The parallel with Thai politics of the past decade is uncanny. So vicious were the political frictions triggered by Shinawatra’s populist defection from the traditional political establishment (called the ammart), the Thai army soon stepped in, dressed in full battle gear, backed by big business and the monarchy and egged on by street protests of urban middle class citizens frightened by the prospect of permanent rule by a tycoon businessman and people-loving macho demagogue. In the early years of the 21st century, Shinawatra proved by his actions that the old axiom ‘no bourgeois, no democracy’ is by no means valid for the Asia and Pacific region, whose middle classes have no ‘natural’ taste for democracy. The upshot: forced out of office, convicted on conflict of interest charges (the Thai Supreme Court referred to ‘policy corruption’) and stripped of his passport and half his assets, Shinawatra began to play the role of the wronged democrat, the martyred man of the people, the phrai, their champion in what he now likes to call ‘a tug-of-war for democracy, against state violence’.
Is Thaksin Shinawatra’s political career finished? Last week, the first-ever independent Truth for Reconciliation Commission for Thailand (TRCT) issued its public report on the 2010 violence and included by way of its finding the recommendation that he bow out of the Thai political scene. While Somsri Hananuntasuk welcomes the report as both informative and a possible basis for future justice, she doubts the recommendation will be taken up. ‘Shinawatra lives on, connected to us, directly involved in our politics from afar,’ she says. ‘Now operating from Dubai, he has several passports [granted by the governments of Montenegro, Bahamas and Nicaragua] and owns property in Hong Kong. He’s mobile. He’s already touched down in border towns in Laos and Cambodia to greet legions of his red-shirt faithful. Shinawatra has options. He’s connected by the Internet. His tweets attract huge audiences. Every press conference abroad gets maximum attention at home. Public rallies are held using live satellite and phone-in links.’ She adds, with a wise smile: ‘The really strange thing about our political situation in Thailand is that we’re governed by remote control.’
Following massive protests (during April and May 2010) by red shirts against military rule and a landslide election victory in July 2011, Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck is now prime minister. But as Somsri Hananuntasuk points out, by way of conclusion, Yingluck’s current popularity is fed by her highly disciplined efforts not to upset her brother. ‘She dodges questions in the parliament, talks about things in principle, sets up investigations, claims she doesn’t have adequate information, or is too busy.’ The dynasty that works together, stays together, she quips. ‘Thailand is surely the only country in the world where key decisions are made or sanctioned by a former prime minister in exile. It’s become our Thai way of doing politics. We’re one country, with two prime ministers.’