For one of the world’s most polarizing individuals, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand and a telecom billionaire, cuts an understated figure. The soft-spoken police officer left the force at the age of 38 and the company he founded to rent out computer equipment soon became the largest mobile phone operator in Thailand.
After Thaksin was elected prime minister of Thailand in 2001, he instituted agricultural microcredit loans, fuel subsidies, infrastructure investments, and universal health care. The country’s rural poor hailed him as a leader willing to stand up to the elites in Bangkok and fight for them. He was the first elected Thai prime minister to serve a full term and was re-elected in 2005 in a landslide.
But in 2006, following massive protests from the opposition, the military staged a coup, setting the stage for a decade long, sometimes bloody, power struggle (including a military-backed coup that ousted Thaksin’s sister Yingluck from her post as prime minister in 2014).
Today, Thaksin’s enemies paint him as diabolical puppetmaster, supporting and controlling his supporters from his homes abroad. They point out that as prime minister, he launched a “war on drugs,” which, according to Human Rights Watch, involved 2,800 extrajudicial killings in just its first three months.
But no one denies his influence, least of all his opponents. Parties that support Thaksin have won every Thai election since 2001. Periodically—in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013, and 2014—tens of thousands of protesters fill Bangkok’s streets, sometimes in support of Thaksin and other times to rally against him. But his image is always at the center of the demonstrations—sometimes worn proudly on red T-shirts and other times burned in effigy.
Thaksin has been in self-imposed exile since his ouster a decade ago, and, after more than two years of public silence, he sat down with World Policy Journal in New York City and gave his candid thoughts on the current government, the region’s challenges, and what the future of Thailand could hold.
A full version of this interview with Thaksin Shinawatra will be published in World Policy Journal’s summer 2016 issue.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You recently distributed coffee-table books and calendars to many of your supporters, you’re speaking to the press again, you’re speaking to us. Why are you re-emerging onto the public stage now?
THAKSIN SHINAWATRA: I try to be low-key, give a chance to the regime to solve whatever problems. They said that they want reconciliation. But watching for quite a long time, reconciliation is not there. It’s the opposite; they’re creating more rifts among the Thai. It’s time for me to talk, because the new constitution is being drafted. And the way they draft the constitution is very worrisome. I want to see my country moving forward, but this is a backward constitution. That’s why I want to voice my concern. I don’t care whether I go back home or not. I just care how you can move our country forward, how the rule of law will be respected, and how the dignity of the Thai people must be respected. So that’s the reason why I want to express my concern.
WPJ: You mention the proposed constitution. What is it in particular that concerns you about the constitution, and what would need to change for you to support it?
TS: We used to have a very modern constitution, which was implemented in 1997, during my administration. We did not draft it; we were the ones who came after that constitution was in effect. But I think that was one of the best [constitutions] Thailand ever had. But after the coup d’état, they wrote it again, which is worse than the one in 1997. Now the constitution is not to the international standard. We don’t have a guarantee of human rights, democracy. It’s the opposite; they increased the power to the constitutional court, which has too much power already. All the power is unchecked, it’s not balanced, giving more power to the judicial side. And the senators are appointed, all 200 members of senator who will be appointed.
WPJ: By whom, who’s appointing the senators?
TS: The junta is doing that. They can appoint any [prime minister] if the parliament includes 200 appointed senators. And also they will have one so-called politburo, which will supervise the government. It means that if the prime minister is going out of the country negotiating trades, they need to get approval from the politburo. It’s exactly like the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, the official name of military junta that ruled Myanmar from 1988 to 2011]. So this is very backward in terms of democracy and human rights.
WPJ: In a scenario where this proposed constitution does pass or is imposed, what do you think happens in the elections if they go forward in mid-2017?
TS: Well regardless we’re going to win the most seats. But you cannot deliver what you promise to the people, you cannot solve the problem of the country if you’re being controlled by the politburo and appointed senators.
WPJ: There’s a petition to World Policy Institute and personal letters sent to us denouncing you and urging us to not even come here—
TS: That is written from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
WPJ: That may be, but there were still 10,000 signatures on it and protesters outside our office. Even if there may have been some urging from the government, there is this anger toward you. Where do you think that came from, and why there’s such a strong response to you and your policies?
TS: If we wanted to do the same, we could have had more signatures. You can witness every election—we always win by a landslide. We have many more supporters. I think those who say that they are patriotic, they should be quiet and let the country run in a democratic way. In every election, if you don’t like the government, you don’t vote for it. They’re going to lose the election. But if the majority still votes for them, you have to respect that. It’s like in the U.S. I remember at the end of the term of President Bush, his popularity was very low. But he still continued until the end of his term, because the rule says that. You play by rules, you respect the rules. And then elections come, they vote for Democrats. President Obama won a big landslide. That is normal.
WPJ: I wanted to take a broader view now of the region for a moment, what’s your view of what’s happening in the South China Sea. You know most of the players involved, will tensions continue to rise?
TS: When my sister was prime minister, Thailand was assigned to be coordinator between ASEAN and China on the South China Sea issue. I had a chance to talk to many leaders that were involved on the China side as well. I don’t think we’ll have war or fighting, but it depends on the negotiations. China doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty, but they are willing to do joint development. They are willing to allow maritime passage in that area. If countries like Philippines, they say that it’s been a long tradition that we Filipinos do fishing on this island, this thing can be negotiable. I don’t think there will be a big conflict. But Vietnam also may be a bit stronger, because they want to negotiate for sovereignty.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of DoD / Helene C. Stikkel]