This post is the fourth post in the series ‘Thailand in Crisis’, covering the political history of Thailand in the 21st century. You can see the rest of the project here.
As prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra was a self-professed admirer of the longtime Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew. According to Lee, Thaksin told him that he once visited Singapore to figure out what made it successful, and decided he would do the same for Thailand.
But if Thaksin wanted to copy the roots of Singapore’s economic success, more troublingly, he also sought to emulate Lee’s consolidation of political power. Where Lee had succeeded in building what is effectively a one party state, 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 summarizes 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 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”. Indeed, Thaksin, more devoted to traditional Thai values than his critics might charge, was unwilling to countenance the deliberative democracy that an active parliament might espouse. In his view, governance was about moral leadership exercised by a disinterested elite:
Politics in our country at present has been influenced by British politics where they argue against one another like lawyers. This may conflict with what Buddhadasa wanted, namely the parliament as a gathering of men of moral integrity.
For Thaksin, his election was the creation of a social contract between him and the Thai people; by surrendering their own active participation in politics, he would bring about economic growth and prosperity.
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-politicization 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.