There is no politician in Thailand who is more loved or hated.
Thaksin Shinawatra is at the centre of discord that has laid bare the divisions between Thailands urban and rural communities, pitting both against each other in public.
The outbreaks of violence have dampened tourism and foreign investment as the economy struggles to right itself in the wake of the global economic crisis. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya rounded on Thaksin recently, likening him to Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini and branding him a bloody terrorist who was responsible for the violence in Bangkok.
The irony that the countrys poor are being spurred on in their war against the elite by one of its wealthiest men has not been lost.
A self-made businessman who set up one of the countrys most successful telecoms companies, Thaksins path to power was seamless. In 2001 he earned his spurs as a savvy operator when his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais party) swatted the Democrats with a populist platform of cheap healthcare, and opposition to the wealthy Bangkok elites.
He was deeply controversial even as he distinguished himself as the countrys first prime minister to serve his entire term in office. NGOs such as Human Rights Watch criticized him over his handling of the insurgency in southern Thailand and his unrelenting war on drugs, which was said to lead to over 2,000 deaths. Observers accused him of centralizing power and bullying the press.
But under Thaksin the nations poverty levels dropped dramatically, and he was returned to power with a resounding victory in 2006. He was toppled later that year by a military coup.
The fugitive politician now boasts passports from Nicaragua and Montenegro and has not lived in Thailand since August 2007. He endeared himself to the supporters of Manchester City by buying the football club, and he skipped bail in August 2008 when he failed to return from the Beijing Olympics and fled to London. He has defied the Thai governments efforts to extradite him and lives openly in Dubai, where busloads of his supporters arrive every few weeks to pay their respects.
Thaksins exile has been complicated by his battle against several charges over corruption. He was sentenced in his absence to a two-year jail sentence over his breach of rules, by helping his wife buy land in Bangkok from a state agency at a low price when he was prime minister. Thaksins wife was acquitted of all charges.
Only this year the countrys Supreme Court seized $1.4 billion from Thaksin, having ruled that he lied about his control of firm Shin Corp while he was in office, and changed government policy in his favour. Thaksin was given $900 million the remnants of the $2.3 billion Singapores Temasek paid for the company in January 2006.
He has also been accused of disloyalty to Thailands beloved King Bhumibol, the worlds longest-reigning monarch.
In spite of his travails, Thaksin has managed to retain considerable influence amongst his supporters, who hail predominantly from the poor rural areas of north and north-eastern Thailand. He has provided the rallying cry for the red shirts for the last four years as a symbol of unfair treatment meted out by the states institutions.
But in Thaksins absence, and even as he has sought to bend the poor to his will by Twitter, text, the internet and phone, the agenda has begun to shift towards the poor themselves, who have found their voice in a political process once alien to them.
In an exclusive interview with Emerging Markets in April, Thaksin spoke about the events unfolding in Thailand.
EM: What do you make of the emergency that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called in Bangkok?
TS: I think its not necessary because the protestors are there peacefully. They dont have any arms. They are just exercising their rights according to the constitution. They call for parliament to be dissolved because they believe that Abhisit did not come to power through democratic means.
EM: You say the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship [UDD, also known as red shirts] is peaceful. Is the government?
TS: The government right now is maneuvering the army from all over the country back to Bangkok. You find that soldiers from every unit nationwide have come to Bangkok.
EM: When did this happen?
TS: It is happening now. So many in Bangkok are now from the north, from the south, from the eastern provinces. They have all come to Bangkok now just to prepare to block the people who flow from the provinces to Bangkok and to try to arrest the leaders of the UDD now.
EM: What will Abhisit do now?
TS: Well, if I were him I would dissolve the parliament. When he was the opposition leader he called for [former prime minister] Samak [Sundaravej] to dissolve parliament. At that time there were much smaller numbers of the yellow shirts who came out, and he said that if youre familiar with mature democracy like in the West even if one person comes, or a thousand, you have to listen to them. Thats what he said. So you have to listen to the people, even one person. But now he says that dissolving parliament is not the answer.
EM: What tactics do you think hell use?
TS: He always revokes the law. Sometimes law is not law and justice is not the same. When you provide justice you have to think both politically and legally as well. When you have power and you try to revoke law all the time, you will create conflict. That is not the democratic way. There should be rule of law, not just law.
EM: Do you have war between the soldiers and the people?
TS: This is not true, because the soldiers are also Thais. Many of them are reluctant to come, but they have discipline. They have to come according to what their boss said. And they come. And many low-ranking officials are resistant. But [the government] keeps pressure on them.
EM: How do you know the low-ranking soldiers are resistant?
TS: Their cousins, their friends, some of their wives also in the UDD.
EM: Will there be violence?
TS: Last year they used the government sponsored militia to mix into the red shirts and create violence. And they managed to arrest some of the imitation red shirts in the parliament, and then one carried an M16 [rifle] into parliament itself. How can the red shirts be in there if they are not on the side of the government. [The supposed red shirts are actually] from the government. The government is trying to use all kinds of dirty tricks to suppress the UDD.
EM: What is your role in this?
TS: I give advice to the UDD. They call for advice, because many of them are my supporters. But many of them now are those who are advocates of democracy, even if some of them didnt like me before.
EM: Do they like you now?
TS: They know that the country is not in a democracy. It is not democracy at all. Those who are educated cannot accept that. Now even those who are really strong critics of mine turn to support the UDD, not to support me but because of democracy and justice.
EM: So the UDD calls you for advice?
TS: Yes they call me from time to time. They have their own thinking, but they may want to double check.
EM: How much time do you spend advising the UDD now?
TS: During the peak times like this, maybe one or two hours [a day].
EM: So what is your role right now with the red shirts?
TS: I share some intelligence.
EM: What is your strategy now?
TS: When there is this much conflict, you have to try to solve it. You cant just try to suppress the people or disperse them. At the same time you create double standards. You treat red shirts and yellow shirts totally differently, because the yellow shirts are on your side, and the red shirts are on the opposite side. Now the institutions are involved in the political conflict. For example, the justice system must be free and fair, but now there is intervention in it. The media must be neutral, but it is not neutral anymore; it belongs to the government. And every step of the justice system has been forced by the government to help the yellow shirts. The yellow shirts occupied Government House for 193 days, and they faced no prosecution. They occupied the airports, and no one has been prosecuted. But at the same time you issue arrest warrants for the UDD, so you create more hatred and conflict.
EM: You see pictures of Thai against Thai.
TS: That has never happened before. They alleged that I am not loyal to the king which has never been true. They even allege that I was trying to turn Thailand into a republic and become the president, which is stupid if I were to think like that. I have a background as a businessman. When I do something I have a strategy and I want to achieve. When you achieve one goal after another, it means you become more popular. It doesnt mean that when youre popular you want to become something else. We respect the monarchy. No one dares to think something else.
EM: Abhisit is still prime minister though hes now staying in an army camp.
TS: He is PM, but he cannot travel. If he travels, he has to have 5,000 bodyguards with the helicopters everywhere he goes. The people dont accept him, because the way he became PM was through undemocratic means. You know how he became PM? He formed the government in the military barracks, and even now the largest party is still Pua Thai. Pua Thai is the largest party in parliament.
EM: Does he still have the support of the army?
TS: The army listens to the palace circle. And he listens to the palace circle.
EM: If Abhisit arrests the leaders, then how can the red shirts go on?
TS: Its not easy to arrest them. The people will protect them. They have a lot of people who protect them.
EM: But what happens if Abhisit arrests them?
TS: There might be a clash between the military and the people, which is not good.
EM: Do you think that the clashes we saw in May 1992 will happen again?
TS: Thats what we are worried about. I think instead of doing that, Abhisit had better dissolve the parliament and call for the new elections and reconcile the country. I suggest he dissolves the parliament and asks all the parties concerned to bury the hatchet, come for elections and respect the result. General Prem [president of the Privy Council, which advises the Thai king] should not use the ECT [Electoral Commission of Thailand] to bully the peoples choice again, like he did last time. The problem is that General Prem is the one who is messing up the whole country by trying to intervene with the independent agencies including the ECT.
EM: Will there be reconciliation?
TS: The country cannot move. The country cannot move forward if there is no reconciliation. If there is no justice and no rule of law in Thailand, how can it work? How can it progress? I call for reconciliation all the time.
EM: But Abhisit doesnt call you?
TS: They have not heard. [Laughs] They have not heard. They listen but they have not heard.
EM: If there was an election tomorrow and the red shirts won, would there be a way that they could help you return to Thailand?
TS: I dont know. It would depend on the conditions of reconciliation. Reconciliation means that we should bury the hatchet for all parties and then be fair to everybody, not bully each other and let the justice system run its course.
EM: If there were an election, would the red shirts be able to vote you in as PM? Would they get the king to sign a petition?
TS: I think we have to see the result of reconciliation.
EM: You foresee that there will be some kind of reconciliation and then therell be elections? Is that what you foresee happening in the next few months?
TS: There are two scenarios. Positively, optimistically, I think there should be reconciliation and elections. Pessimistically, there is a clash between the military and the people. They could reconcile. If they continue, if they think that the red shirts are just a small number of people, then thats going to bring the southern Thailand pattern [of insurgency] in many parts of the country.
EM: Into northern Thailand?
TS: Northern, north-eastern, even some parts of central Thailand.
EM: Do you want to go back to Thailand?
TS: Definitely. It is my motherland. Why not?
EM: How do you think you might be able to go back to Thailand?
TS: The reconciliation might happen soon. I am still positive, because at the end the Thais always forgive each other.
EM: Do you think you will be back in Thailand in three months?
TS: I dont know. I dont know. Hard to say, but I think it is possible this year.
EM: Would you go back into politics?
TS: If I were to have the choice not to go back to politics, thank God. If I dont have to, I would be very happy. I want to become an international businessman.
EM: Do you worry that the divisions in Thailand are getting too deep?
TS: If they were to arrest and crack down the red shirts, it will be very, very explosive. This is their last chance if they want to reconcile. If they want to reconcile, this is it. It can happen easily, but if it passes through this, after the crackdown they think that the red shirts will disappear. Last years crackdown shows that [the government] doesnt listen. But if they crack down this time, the red shirt movement will get much bigger. When the first line of leaders has been arrested, there will be a second line and third line.
EM: Why do the yellow shirts say that you are trying to turn Thailand into a republic?
TS: Thats the only allegation that is very, very powerful, because the Thai people love the king. If you want to do any harm to the king, you are not popular immediately. Because I am very popular, I can win every election, but the only way they can knock me down is to say that I am trying to turn Thailand into a republic, that I am not loyal to the king. Thats the allegation used when your opponent is very strong.
EM: If you went back into politics, would you have to go back as PM?
TS: I dont want to go back to politics.
EM: You dont. But if you did?
TS: If I did, if I was elected, I would have to become PM, with a majority. But I try not to; I try not to.
EM: What do you think you represent to the people of Thailand?
TS: I think I represent the majority of Thais: those who have to struggle in life and dream of prospering. Not just the poor, but also small entrepreneurs. I want to help them to be able to have at least the basic needs.
EM: You would do that if you went back to Thailand?
TS: Yes. If I were to go back to politics, I would do it quick and then quit politics. Just to pay gratitude to my supporters who really want me back.
EM: Would you stand as leader of the red shirts?
TS: I am not leader of the red shirts. The three leaders used to work with me. I am just giving them some advice.
EM: Would you go back as leader of Pua Thai?
TS: If I have to and can go back to politics, yes. But I still want to live my life peacefully.
EM: Do you help Pua Thai financially as well?
TS: Im not directly helping them, but many of my friends and relatives are.
EM: If there was an election tomorrow, would you win?
TS: Definitely. Landslide. Thats why Abhisit doesnt want to dissolve parliament: he knows hes going to lose his job.
EM: Do you think the king supports you?
TS: Well, he is above politics. But the people who surround him, they are too heavily involved in politics.
EM: Why do you think the king signed the decree that toppled you in 2006?
TS: I dont know. Sometimes its quite complicated for me to understand palace affairs.
EM: But when so many people signed the petition asking for a pardon for you, why hasnt he granted it?
TS: This is his own judgment. No one can comment.
EM: How would reform of the constitutional monarchy take place?
TS: The constitution is a peoples constitution and is quite good. But it needs to be amended in some clauses, especially those that relate to independent agency. But the issue is that the palace circle, especially the privy councillor, can intervene, can influence, even if not officially.
EM: Why is Thailand so divided?
TS: Because of the misunderstanding that I might turn Thailand into a republic, that I want to be the president. That is the allegation, which is untrue and unfounded. How can I change my mind quickly in three months? In June 2006 I organized a very successful celebration of the 60th anniversary of His Majestys accession to the throne. [they say] I am not loyal to the king. How can it happen that one person can change his mind 180 degrees in three months?
Thats because of the attempt to topple my government so that democrats could become the government. They had been trying since the end of my first term, but were not successful. And then after they lost and we won a big landslide, then they put in more effort.
EM: What would happen to Abhisit and the ministers if they went to north Thailand?
TS: If they go they will be dispersed by the villagers. They dont respect them, and they dont accept him as the PM. That is what its all about.
EM: Hasnt Abhisit taken a lot of your policies and tried to use them?
TS: Theyve taken a lot of my policies, but [Abhisit] doesnt understand the concepts. They thought these were populist policies, but it is really stimulating the domestic economy through fair treatment. I was trying to allocate resources to the people regardless of whether or not theyre poor. And then I used the concept of empowering the people, giving the villagers their own judgment in solving their problems, through the budget that I allocated [for them]. But Abhisit copied the same thing, but he didnt use the same concept. They are doing procurement on behalf of the poor and giving them whatever they want to buy, not what they need, and then they take some commission out of it. This is the problem. Even though they are copying [my policies], they dont know how to, they dont understand the concept.
EM: Dont you think its quite a contrast that youre such a rallying cry for people who live in rural parts of Thailand when you live in such a beautiful house and youre such a successful businessman? Youre not like them; youre very different.
TS: I am self made. I come from nothing, and I understand opportunity. And I want to share opportunities with all the Thais and let them use their potential to prosper through education, through knowledge, through access to capital. You know Ive been plagued with debt before. When I struggled as a small businessman, how could I survive? I want to pave the way so they wouldnt have to face the small problems. I want to create a more entrepreneurial class of the Thai people so they can see more job creation. That is why they know I understand them. I grew up in the rural area, and my father started as a farmer before he became a businessman. So Ive had experience with everything and became a government official to understand the regulation of being a government official, and also to have the scholarship to have a PhD from abroad, so I have the extensive experience that I needed to help them. One day I went out to a rally and they used a bathrobe to tie my waist. At that time I was not familiar with the culture and whether I could take it off or not. I was very hot, about to faint. Suddenly one old man came and sat down and said: please be prime minister for the poor. I felt, oh, so the poor need someone who can really help them. From that moment I felt that I had to work hard to win. That was in 1998.
EM: Are you going to talk to your supporters at the rallies?
TS: No. I talked to them in the beginning, but now I want them to focus purely on democracy.
EM: And not to distract them? So the government cant use you as an excuse?
TS: Yes. But now the people start to complain that they miss me because the rumour is spreading that I have cancer.
TS: Yes. There is a rumour that I have lost all my hair. [Laughs]
EM: Did you send them a photo showing that you have all your hair?
TS: Even then they just dont care. They just spread the rumour. The democrats are very good at this. Even the owner of the major newspaper in Thailand asked his reporters who know me what happened. [Laughs] He said I am stressed and in shock already because of stress. [Laughs.] He is worried that Ill probably get a stroke from stress. Abhisit is more stressed than me.
EM: Are you sick? You said they say you have cancer.
TS: No. I am strong. I came back from a medical check-up last year. Perfect.