Analysis-Parole for Thailand's Thaksin reflects rise of new threat to old guard

By Panu Wongcha-um and Kay Johnson

BANGKOK (Reuters) – The early release of Thailand’s once-fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra represents to many a deal the influential billionaire made with his enemies to counter an even greater threat to the royalist-military establishment.

To some observers of Thailand’s convoluted politics, Thaksin’s parole after returning from self-imposed exile in August was the latest act in an elaborate effort to crush the hugely popular anti-establishment Move Forward party that finished first in last year’s election.

Move Forward, which advocates institutional reforms including some involving the monarchy, was blocked from forming a government by a Senate appointed by a junta that seized power in 2014 coup against a government led by Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party.

Three months later, Pheu Thai – which during the election campaign had shared Move Forward’s platform of ending military dominance of politics – formed its own coalition government that included some of the very figures involved in the 2014 coup.

The same day, Thaksin, 74, flew back to Thailand on a private jet and surrendered to authorities on various criminal convictions in absentia. He complained of chest pains and was transferred to a police hospital, where he remained until Sunday, the first day he was eligible for parole.

“His comeback has to do with the deal he made with the establishment,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani University.

Reuters requests for comments on Monday went unanswered. Thaksin’s family, party and Thai authorities all say there was no such quid pro quo. But many analysts are unconvinced.

One reason is that while Thaksin’s pro-business agenda posed challenges to Thailand’s patronage system, Move Forward’s anti-establishment proposals went much further.

The party even dared to propose amending (but not abolishing) Thailand’s strict laws against criticising the monarchy that carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

“Thaksin is flexible, he’s a dealmaker,” Joshua Kurlantzik, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“He’s much less of an existential threat than Move Forward, and he’s shown that now by almost surely making a deal … and then doing what the establishment wants.”

COUPS AND KINGS

Thaksin himself was once seen as the biggest threat to Thailand’s establishment – a loose alliance of the military and entrenched business elites who often cite as their ultimate legitimacy their loyalty to the monarchy, considered sacrosanct by many and commanded by the constitution to be upheld in reverence.

When Thaksin burst onto the political scene with his populist party to win elections in 2001, he expanded spending on healthcare, rural development and farming subsidies but was soon accused of corruption, carrying out extrajudicial killings in a controversial drug war and amassing a personal power base.

Crucially, he also faced accusations that he was undermining the monarchy, which he denied. On Monday, Thaksin met prosecutors to discuss a years-old royal insult complaint.

In 2006, the military leveraged middle class anger and mass demonstrations to stage a bloodless coup when Thaksin was abroad, but his loyalists kept winning general elections.

More than a decade of pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” and anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirt” protests paralysed Thailand until the 2014 coup – also against a pro-Thaksin government.

Two things changed to allow Thaksin the opening to return, analysts say.

The first was the strong showing in the vote of Move Forward’s predecessor in 2019 elections, which nevertheless resulted in a government dominated by military-allied parties because of the junta-appointed Senate’s votes.

After that party, called Future Forward, was dissolved by a court ruling, its founder banned from politics and charged with royal insult, student protests in 2020 began to spread – eventually swelling to tens of thousands.

Unlike other protest movements, the students began openly questioning some long-held underpinnings of Thai society – including the military repeatedly seizing power in the name of protecting the crown.

Later, some even criticised the king himself. Scores of those protesters have since been prosecuted under lese-majeste laws.

But the open questioning of some of Thailand’s most traditional institutions could not be undone and even made it onto the political platform of the reconstituted Move Forward in the 2023 elections.

When Move Forward won the most seats in those elections, it led to months of deadlock in parliament. The military-appointed Senate, as expected, refused to vote in a Move Forward-led government. No other political party would join Move Forward – citing its stated willingness to even consider changing laws protecting the monarchy.

Move Forward’s refusal to abandon its proposal to amend the royal insults law outraged conservatives and military-backed lawmakers closed ranks to prevent it from forming a government.

Analysts pointed to the fact that Thaksin did not spend a single night in prison as an indicator some kind of deal was likely made during those months.

“Thaksin needed the help of the ‘establishment’ to return to Thailand without going to prison,” said Paul Chambers, of the Center of ASEAN Community Studies at Thailand’s Naresuan University.

“The establishment needed Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party to help prevent the Move Forward party from coming to office without having to resort to another military coup.”

Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the newly organised establishment had effectively co-opted its one-time enemy to prevent the rise of another.

“Thaksin now has become more like a pawn rather than a mastermind,” he added.

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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