Thaksin Rolls Dice in Bid to Check Thai Military

The sudden reemergence of Thai former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to take on the junta that took over the country in 2014 is an attempt to thwart its secret plan to stay in power for at least a decade or more, sources in Bangkok say.

“His plan is to raise the alarm against the draft constitution and generate opposition that would vote 'no' in the referendum that is planned at the end of July,” Asia Sentinel was told. “To do so, he's prepared to risk threats against his family members still in Thailand, including his sister [former Premier Yingluck Shinawatra] and others.”

The draft constitution now under consideration by the National Council for Peace and Order – the junta’s vehicle to rule the country – is the key to that plan, a well-informed foreign source said. However, an earlier draft delivered last July was so unpopular, even in Thailand’s hand-picked parliament, that it had to be withdrawn. Although elections are planned for July, it appears unlikely that the polls will be held this year.

The ostensible reason for the new compact, Thailand’s 21st since 1932, is to reduce the kind of chaos that reigned in late 2013 and 2014 before Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha brought in the tanks on May 22 of that year. But as usual, the separate motive is the approaching end of the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at 88 inevitably weakening. He has remained in the hospital for years, emerging only briefly to be propped up and driven around so his subjects can see him and his seemingly comatose wife. That has resulted in continuing efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of the wastrel prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who a year ago threw out his princess wife and took a Thai Airlines International flight attendant as his new bride.

Although he mostly lives in Germany, the prince has led much-publicized “Bike for Dad” and “Bike for Mom” events in Bangkok, cycling 30-odd kilometers accompanied by large groups of people and looking extremely fit. He appears in pictures with his son, shopping, and recently showed up in photographs of an elaborate picnic, in military uniform, as was his new wife, Princess Suthida.

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Prince troubled

But past events have indicated that temperamentally he is almost uncontrollable. “The ostensible reason [for the military to remain in power] is to maintain stability during the royal succession but another unspoken rationale is to also to try keep the Crown Prince in check when he takes power,” the source said.

“Inside the military government, the plans call for more than a decade of influence and power, and continued rule by [Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister] and the Burapha Phayak or (Eastern Tigers) faction of the army,” the source said. “The NCPO plans to stay in power for a long, long time – counted in terms of multiples of years, not just months – and the constitution is key for that plan to come to fruition.”

As written, the draft contains provisions that future elections will be decided by a proportional representation system that leans towards smaller parties and coalition governments – thus blocking the powerful interests in the north and northeast of the country that brought Thaksin to power in 2000 and enabled him or his surrogate parties to return to power for eight years after the coup that ousted him, even though he was convicted in absentia of abusing his office. That means power will remain in the hands of the military much more publicly instead of behind the scenes where it has rested, interrupted by 19 coups, since the 1932 coup that brought down the absolute monarchy.

Last September, Reuters reported that Thaksin had told his rural opposition movement, the Red Shirts, “Lay low for now, don't panic, ‘play dead’" and urging patience.

"When I spoke to Thaksin, he told me to pretend to be dead a little longer," Red Shirt leader Kwanchai Praipana, a popular pro-Thaksin figure in the northeastern province of Udon Thani, told Reuters, and that once the constitution is ratified and new elections are called, his forces would take over the country.

No more Mr Nice Thaksin

Now, however, the 66-year-old Thaksin is said to have realized that the possibility of returning to power is receding into the distant future if the constitution is ratified and the military’s secret plan is implemented. He apparently has realized that the time for staying quiet and hoping good behavior would be rewarded is no over, and that he must fight back.

If his gamble fails, that is likely to cost him. He still has substantial business interests in the country. The Department of Special Investigation has ordered Thaksin’s son Panthongtae and the secretary of Thaksin’s ex-wife, Potjaman to appear on March 4 over allegations of money laundering in connection with a Krung Thai Bank scandal.

There is widespread speculation in Thailand that Thaksin’s decision to leave his perch in Dubai to take on the military immediately sparked the reaction from the junta to go after his domestic family and assets. Yingluck, his sister, also faces charges of dereliction of duty on the operation of a misguided rice subsidy scheme that cost the government millions. That prosecution is now likely to be speeded up.

Both sides are taking part in a dangerous game. In 2010, Thaksin was able to summon thousands of his Red Shirt followers into the streets of Bangkok to disrupt the city for months until the military cleared them out in brutal fashion.

Roughly 90 people were killed on either side. A chastened Democrat Party called for elections that delivered Pheu Thai and Yingluck to power. An attempt to produce amnesty for Thaksin triggered months of royalist riots that resulted in Prayuth’s coup.

Whether Thaksin would once again call his troops into the streets is open to question. The army has so tightly screwed down the lid on protest that it seems unlikely. The military in recent weeks has become even more harsh, calling on the threatening the families of people who speak out overseas to get their relatives to shut up. One political refugee who offered an analysis of the situation to Asia Sentinel asked to remove all reference to the palace because of the possibility his family would be charged with lese majeste, the harsh law against insulting the royal family which has resulted in almost comical prison sentences.