There is no politician in Thailand who is more loved or
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
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
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
EM: What do you make of the emergency that Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called in
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
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
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
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
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
EM: So the UDD calls you for
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
TS: During the peak times like this, maybe one or two hours
EM: So what is your role right now with the red
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
EM: Into northern Thailand?
TS: Northern, north-eastern, even some parts of
EM: Do you want to go back to
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
EM: Do you think you will be back in Thailand in
TS: I dont know. I dont know. Hard to say, but I
think it is possible this year.
EM: Would you go back into
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
TS: Im not directly helping them, but many of my
friends and relatives are.
EM: If there was an election tomorrow, would you
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
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
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
EM: Why is Thailand so
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
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
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
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.
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
TS: No. I am strong. I came back from a medical check-up
last year. Perfect.