Thailand’s billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is back in his home country after 15 years of self-exile, but the charismatic politician’s return has left a bitter taste in his northern homeland and longtime political stronghold.
Hours after his private jet landed last month, Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party agreed to govern with parties backed by its longtime foes in the military-dominated establishment. It abandoned its alliance with the progressive Move Forward party, which won the most seats in May’s election.
While Thaksin has been jailed on corruption charges, his sentence has been slashed from eight years to one, and may be reduced further.
“I am OK with Thaksin coming back, but I am not happy that the reason he came back is for himself, not for us,” said Manunchaya Duangdong, owner of a mobile phone stall in Thaksin’s home province of Chiang Mai. “I feel a kind of betrayal.”
The deal between Pheu Thai and the military has stoked doubts about the stability and effectiveness of the new government in south-east Asia’s second-largest but sluggishly growing economy. Move Forward, which has sought reform of the country’s strict lèse majesté law, was blocked from the premiership by the military-appointed senate.
“I am disappointed that the people who didn’t win the election are in the government,” said Potjamarn Singharach, a schoolteacher who switched from supporting Pheu Thai to Move Forward. “Now it’s like the Thai people’s voice is nothing.”
Thaksin, a police officer-turned-telecoms magnate, swept to power in 2001 elections as a plutocrat for the people. Policies including rural development funding and cheap healthcare won him votes from millions of Thais who felt ignored by the traditional Bangkok-based elite.
But the populist premier, who also oversaw rights abuses including a bloody “war on drugs”, was ousted in a military coup a year after his re-election in 2005. He was convicted in absentia on corruption charges in 2008 — shortly after he had ended his brief ownership of Manchester City football club — charges he denounced as trumped up. He was sentenced to eight years in jail on his return to Thailand last month, since commuted to one by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Thaksin has arrived in the wake of Move Forward’s electoral surge. In Chiang Mai, the party took seven of the area’s 10 parliamentary seats from Pheu Thai, including the one that contains Thaksin’s birthplace of San Kamphaeng.
A giant portrait still hangs in the old San Kamphaeng shop of the Shinawatra family silk business, which has since moved to new premises.
A seamstress, who gave her name as Pong, recalled the charm that once made Thaksin master of Thai politics. “He was very friendly and used to speak in our local northern language,” recalled Pong, who said she had worked for the Shinawatra family for 40 years. “He was very nice to me, even though I was just an employee.”
Pheu Thai’s failure to change with the times and respond to a new generation of voters has harmed the party’s fortunes, according to Pailin Phujeenaphan, dean of Chiang Mai University’s political science faculty. Its leaders have not offered sufficiently attractive new policies, and the party has been too closely associated with Thaksin, whom younger voters do not remember, she said.
“They didn’t talk too much about democracy, except when talking about how it related to Thaksin Shinawatra,” Pailin said, adding that many Pheu Thai supporters she met felt “shame” about its recent deal to govern alongside the military establishment. “When you talk about Pheu Thai, you talk about the Shinawatras.”
The disillusionment felt by some voters has a painful edge because of Thailand’s at-times lethal politics. In 2010, the military killed scores of pro-Thaksin “red shirt” protesters who had occupied parts of central Bangkok for weeks.
“The red shirts fought for him, and many died,” said Nattapong Awaiwanon, a graphic designer and videographer. “So now they died for nothing.”
Jakkaphon Tangsutthitham, a defeated Pheu Thai parliamentary candidate in Chiang Mai city, offered empathy, but no apology, for the party’s dismayed supporters. “Of course we understand so much why they are upset and why they are angry,” he said. “But you know, if the time comes, you need to move on.”
Jakkaphon said the new government would propose policies including a clean air act after pollution from field burning had plagued Chiang Mai. He further pointed to plans to encourage Thailand’s crucial tourism industry by enabling more flights to Chiang Mai and the island of Phuket.
“We need to be able to deliver the things we talked about in the election campaign,” said Jakkaphon, who has been appointed an aide to new premier Srettha Thavisin.
Pheu Thai will have to show results to halt the political realignment symbolised by Nataphol Tovichakchaikul, the newly elected Move Forward party MP for Thaksin’s home area.
Nataphol’s father was the late Surapong Tovichakchaikul, foreign minister in the 2011-14 Pheu Thai government led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, which was ended by another coup.
As Thaksin’s jail term was cut, the man who deposed the tycoon’s party in his northern Thai birthplace was busy wooing constituents in a local market.
“People thought you had to have the Thaksin name in support of a politician,” said Nataphol. “But now, for a new generation, a politician can be anyone.”