By: Our Correspondent

Deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra resigned from his Thai Rak Thai party Tuesday, effectively terminating what was the most popular party in Thai history before the military and palace joined forces to oust it in a coup two weeks ago.

The billionaire politician had resisted months of calls from his opponents to step aside, but his forced removal by royalist factions of the military made his position as party leader untenable. Thaksin’s personal popularity, as well as his money, was largely seen as the glue holding Thai Rak Thai together.

“No more Thaksin means the end of TRT, because Thaksin was the party,” said Prudhisan Jumbala, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. “Party members probably imagine that the brand is dead.”

Thaksin’s resignation, issued in a letter from his residence in London, comes a day after the party’s largest faction, comprising about 100 lawmakers, left the party en masse. The exodus has come in response to an order by the coup group on Saturday to ban executive members from politics for five years if a party is dissolved for breaking election laws.

Both Thai Rak Thai and the main opposition Democrat party are facing possible dissolution for allegedly breaking the law in the voided April 2 poll. By making the punishment for top members much more severe, analysts said, the junta was sending a strong message that it wanted Thaksin out of the picture.

“I would like to apologize to the party members and the Thai people who wish to see me remaining as the party leader,” Thaksin wrote in a letter to party members released Tuesday. “I would like to emphasize that I have no choice because the new environment forced me to choose to preserve our pride and the future of those who love our party.”

Prior to the coup on September 19, many experts said scant legal grounds existed to dissolve either Thai Rak Thai or the Democrats. Many who wrote the 1997 Constitution said a party should only be disbanded when it advocates the violent overthrow of a democratic government.

But the Constitutional Court, which was set to hear the case, was tossed out with the 1997 Constitution and the government when the junta sacked Bangkok. Now the military leaders have drawn up their own set of rules, created their own version of the Constitutional Court, and have changed laws on a whim since taking over power.

With Thai Rak Thai on life support, much speculation has arisen over whether the Democrat party will also be terminated. So far, the party’s leaders say they are confident it has done nothing wrong, and have urged members to sit tight.

“We don’t think our party will be dissolved,” said Democrat spokesman Ong-art Klampaiboon. “There has been no action on this from our executive committee.”

But some wonder if the Democrats will be let off the hook so easily. The generals, who have banned political activity, may decide to wipe the slate clean entirely.

If the junta leaders happen to absolve the Democrats and dissolve TRT – or the former ruling party becomes a shell of its former self – that won’t necessarily pave the way for Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to become prime minister when elections are finally held. Democrat support is largely confined to Southern Thailand and Bangkok, and it’s unclear if Thai Rak Thai’s northern factions will choose to link up with the country’s oldest political party.

“I don’t think Thai Rak Thai’s dissolution makes us worse or better,” Ong-art said. “We have to see what will happen over the next year. It’s very unpredictable.”

Using the money from his telecommunications business, Thaksin formed Thai Rak Thai in 1998. The party rose to power three years later on a populist platform of cheap health care, microcredit loan schemes and debt reduction.

Shortly after Thai Rak Thai won its first election in 2001, Thaksin found himself facing a five-year ban from politics if the Constitutional Court convicted him of falsely declaring his assets when he was a minister in a previous government. But, in a controversial 8 to 7 decision that some scholars say was influenced by Privy Council President and respected former prime minister General Prem Tinsulanonda, the court acquitted Thaksin.

From then on, his critics allege, the emboldened Thaksin systematically dismantled the independent bodies enshrined in the Constitution, using his money to buy off votes in the National Assembly, the Senate and elsewhere. Thaksin’s first administration also sought to crack down on the media by using criminal defamation lawsuits, and waged a highly popular war on drugs that appalled human rights groups who deplored the rampant extra-judicial killings.

In January 2004, a brewing separatist struggle in Thailand’s predominately Muslim southernmost provinces erupted, prompting Thaksin to crack down hard. Critics blamed his policies, which included allowing security forces to tap phones, ban meetings, detain suspects without charge and impose curfews, for inflaming the insurgency, which has killed more than 1,700 in the past 21 months.

Even so, Thai Rak Thai became more popular than ever among the poorer folk in the countryside. It won more than 19 million votes in January 2005, the most ever in Thai history.

Ever since that day, however, the party has been on the decline. Thaksin’s efforts to silence outspoken publisher Sondhi Limthongkul last year gave rise to a street protest movement calling for his ouster.

Though small at first, the number of Bangkokians shouting for him to leave reached fever pitch in January after Thaksin’s family sold its stake in Shin Corp to the Singapore-based Temasek Holdings for nearly $2 billion in a largely tax-free sale. Some decried the sale as illegal, but most simply hated Thaksin for enriching himself without giving money back to the state or donating it to charity. His greed, his opponents claimed, revealed that he did not possess the kingly virtues that a Thai leader should have, and therefore made Thaksin morally unfit to hold office.

To quell the protests, Thaksin dissolved Parliament on February 28. But the subsequent election in April, in which TRT won 16 million votes, was voided after the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej called it undemocratic, and a new election was not scheduled until this month. That was never to be the case, however. For though Thaksin was popular among the rural poor, the Bangkok royalist elite saw him as a threat. Scholars say Thaksin sought to replace the traditional monarchy network with that of his own, sparking a backlash among the royalists who have run Thailand for decades. The behind-the-scenes battle came out into public in July, when Thaksin accused “charismatic people” of trying to overthrow the government through undemocratic means, and Prem told soldiers to pledge loyalty to the king instead of the government.

When it seemed clear that Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai would easily win the next poll, scheduled initially for this month, the royalist Army Commander Sonthi Boonyaratgalin staged a coup with palace support. Now, with the junta threatening to dissolve TRT, many MPs are fleeing in the hopes of being spared by the military-run courts.

How this will all shake out politically remains to be seen, but already whispers are flying around as to who will go where. Former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who was seen as a viable replacement for Thaksin just a few weeks ago but also resigned from Thai Rak Thai yesterday, may form a new political party that encompasses a large number of ex-Thai Rak Thai lawmakers, The Nation newspaper reported yesterday.

Just how Thai Rak Thai’s 16 million or so supporters will vote next year is anyone’s guess, but Thaksin’s absence leaves a huge political vacuum. It remains to be seen if TRT remnants will form new parties or join those of old-time political bosses who operate smaller parties right now. Those include Chat Thai, a Central Thailand regional party headed by former prime minister Banharn Silpa-Archa, and Pracharaj, a new party led by veteran power broker and former TRT member Sanoh Thienthong.

Many are also keeping an eye on former Army Commander Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who served as prime minister during the Asian Financial Crisis. He also served as Thaksin’s defense minister in 2001, but since left the government and switched over to the royalist side.

Chavalit appeared with Sonthi and newly appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont when Prem gave his speech imploring army cadets not to be loyal to the government. He has also joined the junta as an adviser, which may still allow him to run as a politician in a year after a new Constitution is written and elections are held.

“Chavalit has very quietly switched sides,” an Asean diplomat told the Sentinel. “He’s sitting pretty right now.”

Much also depends on how the military junta and its friends in the privy council decide to write the next Constitution. The coup has sent a message that any party that forms the next government must play ball with the royalists – now worried about succession as the god-like Bhumibol grows frail – or face the consequences.

As for Thaksin, this may be a tactical retreat. His sale of Shin Corp stock is suddenly in jeopardy, and he faces numerous corruption probes. By telling the junta that he will keep his distance, he may be hoping the generals left him off easier, which would help his
prospects for a comeback in years to come. For the time being, however, he will have to sit tight in London.

“Support for Thaksin in the rural areas is still strong, and if he can spend time doing charity work in the provinces that support will only grow,” the diplomat said. “He might be able to come back if the generals don’t do a clean job in trying him for corruption.”