Thaksin Return From Exile Shows Thai Royalists Have Bigger Woes

Back in 2008, the last time Thaksin Shinawatra stepped foot in Thailand, he was adored among the nation’s poorer masses and widely despised by the royalist elite who backed his removal in a coup two years earlier.

(Bloomberg) — Back in 2008, the last time Thaksin Shinawatra stepped foot in Thailand, he was adored among the nation’s poorer masses and widely despised by the royalist elite who backed his removal in a coup two years earlier.

On Tuesday, Thaksin is expected to return to Thailand — ostensibly after making a deal with the same military-backed establishment that spent years overturning his party’s election victories through coups and court decisions. 

“Tomorrow at 9 o’clock I would like to request permission to return to live in Thailand and breathe the same air as the Thai brothers and sisters,” Thaksin said on X on Monday. Last week, his daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra said he would arrive at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport at 9 a.m. 

Thaksin’s arrival will coincide with a vote for prime minister later in the day, after his party officially joined forces with conservative groups previously aligned with former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former army chief who had led a 2014 coup against ex-leader Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. Srettha Thavisin, the bloc’s prime minister candidate and a member of the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party, spent years in the real estate industry.

The awkward 11-party alliance emerged after both camps saw their interests align in the wake of a May election that produced a stunning win for Move Forward, a party that advocated changes to a law forbidding criticism of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other top royals. The royalist parties wanted to keep Move Forward out of power, while Thaksin sought to strike a deal that would allow him to return to Thailand after 15 years of shuttling between Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and London.

“Pheu Thai is the most powerful party to battle the emergence of Move Forward, after the electoral defeat of the conservative parties,” said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. “As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

READ: Why Two Thai Coups Can’t Keep Thaksin’s Family Down: QuickTake

Political Drama

Thaksin’s return will mark a full-circle moment in Thailand’s political drama, which has seen a cycle of coups and deadly street protests erodes the nation’s competitiveness as a Southeast Asian manufacturing destination since the turn of the century. Foreign investors have dumped about $3.8 billion of Thai stocks this year, triggering an almost 9% slump in the main stock index to rank it among Asia’s worst performers.

It’s unclear how much Thailand’s outlook will change after a new government is formed, assuming the coalition doesn’t fall apart at the last minute. On Monday, the group pledged a mix of cash handouts and fiscal measures to stimulate an economy that expanded 1.8% in the second quarter, well below a consensus forecast of 3% growth. 

Thaksin himself will likely head straight to jail, as he was found guilty in absentia in four corruption cases and still faces 10 years in prison. In May, he said he would go through the judicial process and also asked for permission to return, without providing more details on the request. King Maha Vajiralongkorn has the power to pardon any criminals. 

“It’s all my own decision for the love and bond I have for my family, homeland, and our master,” Thaksin said at the time.

Thaksin, a former telecom billionaire, first rose to power in 2001 after pledging to revive Thai growth in the wake of the Asian financial crisis and help poorer citizens with cheap healthcare and debt relief measures. His party won 75% of seats up for grabs in a 2005 election, spooking a royalist establishment that had allowed only limited democracy since Thailand abolished absolute monarchy in 1932.

Change of Guard

Thaksin was ousted in a coup the following year, kicking off a power struggle lasting almost two decades in which his political allies would win elections only to see unelected generals, bureaucrats and judges overturn them, using a variety of methods. 

This year’s election, however, saw Pheu Thai finish in second place despite being led by Thaksin’s youngest daughter Paetongtarn, who turned 37 on Monday. That marked a changing of the guard, as younger Thais become more disillusioned with an establishment that has restricted democracy. 

Suddenly the most popular politician in Thailand wasn’t affiliated with Thaksin. Harvard-educated Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, proved both more democratic and ideological, willing to talk about sensitive issues related to the monarchy — something Thaksin had always resisted.

The establishment quickly moved to block Pita from taking power, with the military-appointed Senate — mandated by a constitution written after the 2014 coup — preventing him from becoming prime minister. That paved the way for Thaksin’s Pheu Thai to cut a deal with the military, cementing his return and helping conservatives defuse what they perceive to be the biggest threat to the monarchy. 

“This election has been about Thaksin from the beginning,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University. “His return will strengthen the conservative establishment that was already weakened by the election process. This will delay the democratic process in Thailand.” 

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