Thailand's power holders put Thaksin away

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Thitinan Pongsudhirak | 20 Jun 2020

Thailand's post-coup powers-that-be have gone for the jugular against deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His former Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party was dissolved at the end of May for electoral fraud, the bulk of its senior party executives and Thaksin himself banned from holding political office for five years. As a third blow in a one-two-three combination over two weeks, Thaksin's assets in Thailand have now been controversially frozen by the military-appointed Assets Examination Committee (AEC). His former regime, centred on the TRT's electoral successes in February 2005 by a landslide, and April 2006 by a simple majority in terms of popular votes, has been effectively decapitated, with Thaksin financially debilitated and legally mired under a host of graft charges.

After eight months of ambivalence and oscillation, Thaksin's opponents have put him away at last, but neither the Thaksin phenomenon nor the Thai crisis is coming to an end anytime soon. The freezing of Thaksin's assets has several far-reaching ramifications that will play into the volatile political equation and crucially, shape its outcome.

First, the assets freeze is likely to further polarise Thai politics and exacerbate the intensifying political crisis. Thaksin's opponents vehemently believe he deserves punishment, as his assets were ill-gotten, reaped from the exploitation of power for profit during his rule. Thaksin's paper wealth, after all, more than trebled while he was in office. The tax-free sale of his flagship Shin Corp that netted US$1.9 billion was emblematic of his corruption and cronyism. Thaksin's supporters among the millions of TRT constituents equally insist that the post-coup legal prosecution of Thaksin is political persecution in disguise. They view Thaksin's latest misfortune as bullying and unfair harassment by the forces who unlawfully ousted him in the September 2006 coup.

With the two sides entrenched, the pro-Thaksin and anti-coup street demonstrations against the military are likely to continue indefinitely. These motley street protesters largely comprising pro-Thaksin/TRT and anti-Thaksin/anti-coup columns have little to lose. All of them want to see the back of the Council for National Security, the ruling junta, although some of them want Thaksin back in power while others don't. Their sound and fury will translate into mounting street demonstrations in the days and weeks ahead, with a growing likelihood of violent confrontation.

Second, the TRT supporters will face their litmus test following Thaksin's assets freeze. Thaksin's opponents have always accused his TRT loyalists of being on the former billionaire prime minister's payroll. They say it is neither principle nor ideology but Thaksin's money that has underpinned the street protests and anti-military, anti-coup movements. With his finances curtailed, these movements may simply fizzle out. Thaksin also has less incentive to fund these movements, as his prospects of a return to power appear dim. Thus, if the anti-military protests soon run out of steam, it will validate the view that Thaksin's political power merely stemmed from his pockets, that the protesters are driven by financial gain. However, if these protests continue to gather force, then the anti-military coalition may well prove to be organic, reinforced by beliefs, ideas and genuine grievances and demands, not just money.

Third, Thaksin's assets freeze will tempt him to rally his foot soldiers and possibly contemplate a return to Thailand to defend his and his family's dignity and substantial interests. He will be emboldened by the AEC's 7-to-4 divided judgement. He will also feel that he has little left to lose, with his party disbanded, lieutenants banned, and finances constrained. His movements and latitude abroad would be limited any way given his frozen assets in Thailand. Even his recent attempted purchase of Manchester City Football Club has become problematic following the assets freeze. Few doubt that Thaksin has assets parked outside Thailand, but he will likely try not to move these assets around for fear of vindicating his opponents' claim that he is a crook with hidden wealth abroad.

Coming on the heels of the TRT dissolution and ban on 111 out of its 119 senior executives, the freeze on Thaksin's assets has put the exiled premier at the lowest point of his once-invincible political career, and has upped the tempo of the political crisis. Instead of returning to Thailand in the near term, Thaksin is likely to bide his time by staying abroad for now, partly owing to personal safety concerns in the event he re-enters Thailand. At issue now is how much political traction and coalition expansion we can expect from the pro-Thaksin, anti-coup street protest against the ruling generals.

While Thaksin appears finished politically for the foreseeable future, the forces that he unleashed while in power will continue to play a critical role in Thai politics. And if these forces make enough noise to destabilise the junta's grip on power and alter the political equation, they would provide the enabling conditions for Thaksin to make a comeback to Thailand as a citizen, although not to its body politic as a paramount politician.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. 

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