In Defense of Thaksin Shinawatra

The unfair attacks against Thailand's former prime minister.

The former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra was recently featured in a negative light in Foreign Policy ("Bad Exes," Oct. 1, 2010).  As legal counsel to the prime minister, I would urge your readers to take a closer look at why he remains so popular among Thai voters.

I am privileged to represent the only leader in the history of Thailand since the establishment of the constitutional structure in Thailand in 1932 to complete a full four-year term of office (2001-2005).  Prime Minister Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party were then re-elected with the first single-party parliamentary majority supported by unsurpassed numbers of the citizens he served. Having won seventy-five percent of the seats in the 2005 elections, his administration only ended after an illegal coup, led by generals and shadowy members of Thailand’s elite, in September 2006.  Today, four years after the coup, we are required to defend him from a well-oiled propaganda machine that defames him on a daily basis, with the full weight of a strangled media, rubber-stamp courts and absurd parliamentary resolutions at its disposal.

After all the years of defamation, Thaksin’s popularity persists because of the unsurpassed results his administration achieved in economic and social policy, rescuing the country from a devastating financial crisis.  His leadership brought the impoverished population of the Northeast out of feudal darkness and into the light of basic rights and citizenship, a measure that has been bitterly opposed by an entrenched elite out of the belief that some Thais are meant to enjoy more entitlements than others.

Writing in Newsweek in May 2010, Joel Schectman argued that despite his flaws, Thaksin actually represented the "high-water mark" for Thai democracy and accountable governance.  Noting the major successes in rural development and universal healthcare, the author argued that "from 2001 until 2006 he incorporated full participation of the masses and offered the country its best shot ever at a functioning democracy."

Like any political leader, Thaksin has his opponents and critics.  But unlike the typical partisan bickering of a normal country, Thaksin’s opponents have launched a slew of unsubstantiated cases in an attempt to criminalize him. The only charge that ever stuck concerned his wife’s participation in an auction of public land. Although the land sale involved the payment of fair price, Thaksin was convicted of "conflict of interest" based on the finding that his wife should not have been allowed to bid in the auction while her husband was serving as Prime Minister. This conviction, by the way, was not carried out by an independent tribunal, but rather by a panel specially chosen by the very people who removed him from office.

False legal cases are a common tactic of the current government, and Thaksin is far from the only target. Hundreds of Red Shirt protesters have been imprisoned on specious allegations, more than 100,000 websites deemed inconvenient to the government have been shut down, while various laws from the computer crimes act to the internal security act to the ongoing state of emergency decree have created an Orwellian nightmare. Opponents of Thaksin recently carried out a massacre of more than 80 peaceful protesters, bystanders, and even some journalists, firing upon them in an indiscriminate and disproportionate fashion from rooftop snipers.  Ever since the coup, the country has been backsliding on nearly every measurement of freedom of speech, civic, and human rights. For instance, Thailand slipped from the rank of 59 to 84 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index between 2005 and 2009. Just yesterday, Reporters Without Borders ranked Thailand 153rd in its annual "World Press Freedom" index; before the coup, Thailand was ranked 66th. And yet, faced with the reality of Thailand’s deplorable descent into authoritarianism, certain sections of the foreign media can still be convinced that things were so much worse back when Thaksin was prime minister and the country was still a democracy.

When looking at the current Thai political crisis and the role of Thaksin, readers of Foreign Policy would do well to look beyond the travel-poster depiction of the country, and start asking why the Thai regime is still so afraid of free speech and so reluctant to hold a real election.

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