Thailand in Crisis: Thaksinocracy

This is the third post in the Thailand in Crisis series. The previous post, Thaksinomics, described Thaksin Shinawatra’s populism and economic policies which allowed him to earn massive rural support. 

As prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra was a self-professed admirer of the longtime Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew. In a way, this was understandable; Thaksin focused his policy platforms on the economy, and no other neighbour of Thailand was more successful in this regard.

But more troublingly, Thaksin also sought to emulate Lee’s consolidation of political power. If Lee had succeeded in creating a political dynasty, Thaksin wanted to build a ‘Thaksinocracy’ of sorts on top of Thailand’s ostensibly democratic foundations – something his critics seized upon. He was democratically elected, everyone is willing to concede, even if on a populist platform, but ‘Thaksinocracy’ in a word summarises all many view as his worst excesses: nepotism, conflicts of interest, corruption and above all, an unprecedented consolidation of political power in Thailand’s democratic era. To be a true democrat involves both participation at the ballot box and a willingness to accept checks and balances; Thaksin was enthusiastic about the former but was practically allergic to the latter.

The warning signs came early in his premiership. In 2001, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, one of the independent bodies that had been set up by the reformist 1997 constitution to serve as a check on the executive, accused Thaksin of failing to properly declare his assets while serving as deputy prime minister for Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. The case was forwarded to the Constitutional Court, which could then ban Thaksin from politics for five years and hence strip him from his new office. Thaksin, fresh from his election victory, was not going to roll over and accept the judiciary’s ruling easily. He began mobilizing supporters across the country who publicly opposed the NACC and argued that only Thaksin could lead the country out of its economic mess- and what would happen to the country should Thaksin be forced to quit?

The Constitutional Court would indeed acquit the prime minister, with four of the judges justifying that Thaksin was not in office at the time (the constitution required asset declarations be made within 12 months after leaving office. The court had already charged others for violating the same provision in similar circumstances, so it was clear that this ruling was a result of political pressure. The signs for judicial integrity were not good.

Thaksin would soon give more evidence to believe he did not truly believe his own anti-corruption rhetoric. A core plank of his election campaign was to bring in “new style politics” with new politicians, but his cabinet had many ministers who were traditional politicians (thus associated with corruption) and not the new faces that Thaksin promised; these included Chavalit who became deputy prime minister. “Since there are not many good people to pick around for the Cabinet”, Thaksin explained, “I have to settle for what I have”.

Thaksin was also unafraid of expanding his parliamentary majority even if it meant he had to partner with the parties that he had seemed to decry, adding the Chart Thai and New Aspiration parties into his grand coalition and absorbing the Seritham Party, leaving only the Democrat Party in opposition. With this massive majority, Thaksin was able to exercise total control over parliament, who was ecstatic at the prospect. The Economist wrote in 2002:

[Thaksin’s mergers] would give the government a majority not only in the House, but also in joint sittings with the 200-member Senate. It could then amend the constitution at will, and block censure motions against the prime minister. No non-military prime minister of Thailand has ever enjoyed such unfettered power. Even before the latest merger, only one party of any size, the Democrats, offered any resistance at all to Mr Thaksin. “We used to have so many parties we could not remember their names,” Mr Thaksin crowed after the conclusion of the merger. “We are now sending a message to the world that there will be continuity in politics.”

This did not mean that Thaksin placed much importance in parliament. The Nation described that Thaksin rarely showed up to parliamentary meetings, concluding that “In his view, it must be that he does not regard himself as being accountable to the House”.

Chaisit Shinawatra

Thus, without much trouble, Thaksin had subdued both the judicial and legislative branches of the government – but this did not leave him satisfied. He also moved on the military. The armed forces, formerly highly influential in Thai politics, had accepted- albeit reluctantly- that de-politicisation was needed and tried to project a lower profile. Thaksin, in his bid to consolidate power, chose to reverse that. His cousin, Chaisit Shinawatra, was eventually elevated to the post of army commander, and promoted numerous of his own classmates from the armed forces academy. Over eighty generals were appointed as advisors to the prime minister, and he was generous with the military budget. It was, in short, an attempt to co-opt the military to ensure that this power could not be threatened via military coup.

Thaksin’s project of political consolidation did not end there. He moved on the ostensibly independent political institutions of the 1997 charter by placing loyalists in control and meddled in the public service, removing bureaucrats such as the Governor of the Bank of Thailand to ensure greater political loyalty from the bureaucracy. Not even the fourth estate was left untouched. In 2000, before becoming prime minister, Thaksin had purchased iTV, the only independent television station at the time. Staff who complained about new pro-TRT editorial guidelines were fired. 2001 would be dubbed by the Thai Journalists’ Association as “the year of media interference” as TV programs by independent commentators critical of Thaksin were dropped, and defamation cases were filed against activists and critics.

Finally, the prime minister showed scant respect for the rule of law. In February 2003, Thaksin launched the ‘War on Drugs’, with the goal of suppressing usage of methampethamine in Thailand. The government announced that individual police forces would be graded on their ability to arrest drug-dealers and users and issued a nationalist of suspected drug traffickers. The results were bloody. 2800 were killed extrajudicially within the first three months of the campaign, and a later investigation showed that over half of those murdered had no connection to drugs. When the United Nations’ Human Rights Office said it would send officials to observe police conduct, Thaksin exclaimed, “The UN is not my father!”

In the process of consolidating power fully and visibly, Thaksin would come to alienate many of Thailand’s political players and some of its citizenry, who feared his building of a Singapore-style authoritarian regime. He was popular with much of the electorate, to be sure, but even the most popular prime minister of the modern era was unable to save himself; his inability to demonstrate institutional forbearance would prove to be part of his downfall. Combined with further allegations of corruption, Thaksin’s attempt to create a ‘Thaksinocracy’ would return to bite him, politically fatally, after the 2005 elections.

Categories Thailand in Crisis

3 thoughts on “Thailand in Crisis: Thaksinocracy

  1. This was a great read! Haha, it’s interesting to see a reference to Singapore even when it is not in the most positive light. I could see the clear similarities in terms of influence over the political arena, the military and of course, the media. There is also the accusations of nepotism both Lee Kuan Yew and Thaksin faced.

    I am quite curious what you think about Singapore’s system though. While Thaksin’s attempt at consolidation of power was similar, the results seem rather different. Today, a large majority continues to support the ruling party—roughly 70% the last election, the highest figure since 2001. The government is also regarded as transparent and corruption-free when it comes to finances, unlike that under Thaksin. It is also rather anti-populist, for it has pushes for unpopular policies that they deem pragmatic. This is observed in policies related to immigration, the Central Provident Fund and National Service. The recent announcement to raise the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the coming years may be an apt example, especially if you contrast this with nearby Malaysia’s populist choice of abolishing it. Those at the helm have a penchant for filing civil suits every few years against those who make empty assertions, but it is this that has prevented populist politicians and a Trump-like outcome. The legal suits may be gratuitous, but it is hard to find the verdict biased. Today, politicians are unlikely to make ad hominem remarks or baseless attacks. Even the PAP would think twice, since making a baseless attack when they are known to be vehemently against precisely that may appear as hypocrisy and garner support for the opposition. The nepotism claims here are also unlike those in Thailand, since those in question do have powerful credentials (notably Lee Hsien Loong, who excelled academically even in foreign universities) and may have still attained such positions by merit; we ought to also consider Singapore’s small talent pool due to its population size that may make coincidental connections in the upper-echelons inevitable. It is for these reasons that nepotism claims have mostly died down.

    I do wonder whether the issue is really that of the political system and the consolidation of power. Provided that those at the top are clean, an authoritarian regime is oddly what I seem to want, contrary to what I (perhaps wrongly) inferred was your preference against such consolidation of power. In the right hands, it is efficient and goes against the tentacles of populism, creating an outcome that is in society’s best interest.

    So is the issue really just that Thailand did not have the right ‘dictator’ in power, rather than the concept of power consolidation and authoritarianism itself?

    The last time I asked (which was several years back) about the military junta, you seemed in support of it, yet in this piece, it appears you are against the consolidation of power and authoritarianism. I am interested in knowing what you think, and thanks for the many insights into Thailand.

    1. Sorry for such a late reply, I seem to have missed this comment completely. I’d love to talk to you more about this.

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