Thaksin Forces Give Up

It appears that the Pheu Thai Party’s attempt to bring its outlawed and exiled former chief Thaksin Shinawatra back to Thailand has failed in the face of thousands of angry protesters in Bangkok’s streets.

Recognizing the possibility for chaos, the upper house of the Thai parliament refused to pass the contentious amnesty plan that would have granted and has sent it back to the lower house, which theoretically could pass it again and send it directly to King Bhumibol Adulyadej for signature. However, given continuing demonstrations outside parliament, that appears improbable, if not impossible.

The country has remained in a sullen, exhausted calm in the three and a half years since the army cracked down on the protesters, firing live ammunition and flinging tear gas grenades to drive them from their two-month occupation of the capital. Now the attempt to ease Thaksin back into Thailand appears to have polarized Thai society even more.

Until now, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister and surrogate, has been given relatively high marks for her stewardship of the government and the economy, befriending the generals who really run the place and making overtures to a suspicious royalty that believed Thaksin might try to turn the country into a republic, which he has repeatedly denied.

Deep anger at Thaksin remains despite his attempts to woo the electorate through frequent televised addresses. The 64-year-old former telecommunications magnate is enormously popular in the impoverished northeastern part of the country, where his health and welfare programs have had a real impact. But he is equally disliked in Bangkok, partly because the urban elites do not trust his attempts to empower the poor and because there were real fears that he was seeking to cloak dictatorial powers in his populist appeal.

Many political analysts have pointed out that attempts to pass the bill, which would have granted amnesty to all those involved in political protests since 2006, was a strategic blunder that has undone most of the fence-mending by the Pheu Thai forces, which were returned to office in 2011 elections by a 252-seat margin in the 500 lower house and which head a strong governing coalition of six other parties. They see the attempt to railroad the measure through as a slap in the face for the rule of law.

Yingluck took to national television to plead vainly for acceptance of the bill. “Since this government took power it has focused on reconciliation," she said. "An amnesty is not about forgetting our painful lessons but about learning so it does not happen again to our young generation. If people learn how to forgive, the country will move forward."

The country isn’t having any of it. The attempts to push through the amnesty have had the effect of uniting Thaksin’s die-hard royalist enemies, the opposition Democrats and many of his own allies as well. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – the Red Shirts who formed the vanguard of the protesters in bloody May 2010 protests -- want justice for those who shot down more than 90 protesters who were shot down in an overpowering onslaught by army forces commanded by Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha.

In a vain effort to placate the opposition Democrats, the amnesty included former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, who were indicted earlier this year for "causing others to commit murders" when they ordered the military to put an end to the 2010 occupation. It is widely believed that the two were indicted to turn them into trading chips in the campaign to bring Thaksin home, since other Thai leaders involved in similar bloodshed in the past, in 1991 and 1976, escaped with impunity.

Nonetheless, it is these two that the Red Shirts particularly want to see in the dock. It didn’t work. There have been continuing daily protests of as many as 10,000 participants seeking to pressure the government to drop the bill.

The protesters are demanding that Thaksin, who remains holed up in Dubai, spend time in jail on the charges that he fled in 2008 when he was convicted of abusing his power to help his wife buy public land at an auction. He has also faced charges of abuse of power and conspiracy to muzzle the press. Thaksin has denounced the charges as politically motivated to keep him from power. In a country where virtually every major politician has helped him or herself to the spoils of power for decades, that carries some weight.

Despite being out of the country, Thaksin has continued to run it through the prime ministership of his sister and his close circle of advisers including Pansak Vinyaratn, setting policy and moving the political chairs around. The economy, weak in 2013, is expected to grow by 5 percent in 2014, largely on the basis of a huge infrastructure spending bill that Thaksin is almost certain to have engineered.

The bill, passed on Sept. 20, fits Thaksin’s foreign policy aim of making Bangkok the center of Southeast Asia, with a projected Bt2 trillion (US$64 billion) to finance a vast network of high-speed railways, highways and mass transit systems that would link in Cambodia and Laos and extend down to Malaysia. It’s unlikely, however, that Thaksin himself will get home anytime soon to view his handiwork. He has largely lived in exile since 2006 when a royalist coup ousted him, except for 2008, when he made a brief stopover in Thailand before fleeing again in the face of the corruption charges.