Thai Game Plan: Drive Shinawatras into Exile
In November of last year, a Thai businessman with close connections to the leaders of the Bangkok protests that eventually drove the Pheu Thai government from power said the real reason for the protest wasn’t just to oust the government.
The real motivation, he said, was to drive every trace of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra not just from power but from the country and to eradicate any vestigial remnants of his influence. Now, with the coup that took place on May 22 and a military government installed, government agencies are going after Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, the former Pheu Thai prime minister, and political figures close to her.
Bangkok sources say the plan is to drive her into exile with her brother, put her in jail or give her a sentence that would prohibit her from entering politics again when the junta allows new elections, probably in October 2015.
“This has been the plan from the start. What they want to do is hang a criminal conviction on [Yingluck] and compel her to flee,” said a longtime observer of Thai politics. “I think they want to force the Shinawatras and other related clans out of the country.”
Getting rid of the family is a mantra for the business community and the elites in Bangkok, who view Thaksin’s social policies, put in place when he came into office in 2001, as ruining the country. They were rumored to have offered Thaksin a chance to liquidate his assets in Thailand when the conflict started last year.
However, sources say, Thaksin, who is in self-exile in Dubai evading a two-year conflict of interest sentence against him back home, turned down the chance and sought to maintain his political presence, a gamble that he appears to have lost, at least for the short term. The family owns a controlling stake in SC Asset, a real estate developer, as well as other assets, with a net worth in the country of US$1.7 billion, according to Forbes.
“The Red Shirt movement is a paid agency of Thaksin and once the funds dry out it will not be significant,” an officer with one of Thailand’s biggest banks told Asia Sentinel in an email. “In the last general election, which was declared void, the Pheu Thai Party received much less than half of the total votes and without a populist policy its influence will further decline. What I have been afraid of is Thailand going the same way Argentina did in the 1930s. The populist policy of Peron led the country from the fourth highest per capita income in the world to the bottom 50.”
Those populist policies included a comprehensive social welfare scheme for the long-ignored rural poor that featured scholarships, welfare housing, health plans, insurance, company incubators, a Bt1 million investment fund for individual villages and many others, something no politician in Bangkok had ever done. The programs have guaranteed the former prime minister and his three succeeding surrogate governments overwhelming success at the ballot box ever since despite charges of massive corruption, cronyism, threats against the press and pay-for-play bribe demands from corporations. The banking official estimates the departure of the Pheu Thai government will save Bt100 billion a year in corruption although that seems unrealistic, since Thai's political classes were singularly corrupt before Thaksin ever came on the scene in 2001.
This time, there is a scorched-earth plan to make sure that Thaksin, his sisters, the rest of the family and their allies don’t return in any form, on charges that seem about as flimsy as those lodged against onetime Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin ally who was ousted for violating a constitutional ban on private employment in 2008. Samak, who was certainly no angel, had US$2,350 in expenses for buying provisions for a cooking show he had hosted as a guest.
Whether the military agrees is another thing. "I think the military liked Yingluck," said a Thai businessman. "She was very well liked, was kind and respectful to the military when she was the defense minister and PM although she won't be allowed to be in the opposition. I think there is an element of softness in the lady that it won't be too bad for her. I can't think of exile, really, but maybe be the assets of her brother might be in danger." *
Despite that, supposedly independent agencies including the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission are pursuing Yingluck, with the Election Commission investigating a charge that she misused her office by taking to national television after she had dissolved parliament to defend the government’s disastrous rice-pledging scheme, which paid rice farmers up to 50 percent more than global market rates.
Nine cabinet members are being investigated along with Yingluck and are likely to be convicted and barred from politics, if not jailed. Jakrapob Penkair, a major figure in the Red Shirt movement and a close associate of Thaksin’s, already having fled the country ahead of lese majeste charges, has now been charged with amassing weapons. He and other Thaksin allies have started a “government in exile” in Cambodia.
According to Bangkok media, Yingluck is also being investigated for inappropriately using her position as caretaker prime minister after parliament had been dissolved to visit supporters in the northern and northeastern regions of the country to campaign for the Pheu Thai Party in snap elections held Feb. 2. Pheu Thai won the election handily after the Democrat Party boycotted and actively sought to block voters from going to the polls.
The election commission has taken no action against Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader, or any of his followers for the unrest that shook the country for more than six months before Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in the coup.
Other reports indicated that the National Anti-Corruption Commission is still investigating Yingluck and the cabinet members over allegations of corruption in connection with the rice-pledging scheme. The commission released details of Yingluck’s assets indicating she was the second-richest person in the cabinet, with assets between her and her partner of Bt574 million (US$17.7 million) and said she had failed to disclose the existence of a watch worth Bt2.5 million.
Yingluck told the commission the assets she stipulated and submitted to the agency did not include luxury watches that were under NACC investigation. The commission, however, said the information she supplied was insufficient and that it intended to summon her for further questioning. Given past actions by the courts, it appears likely that Yingluck is not going to escape unscathed.
*This story was modified to add the paragraph above.