Opinion: Thaksin’s complicated legacy under re-interpretation

I was in first grade when I woke up, one fateful day in 2006, to go to school. Alas, school was cancelled. A military coup was happening. A military coup? Meaningless words to a first grader, but at least it meant more time to sleep.

Almost fifteen years have now gone by since that military coup, and here Thais are, still living with its ramifications. Thaksin Shinawatra has left the country for over a decade, but even in absentia he remains one of the country’s most important political figures.

That is not to say that his brand has not faded at all over the years. His sister Yingluck’s ouster from the premiership in 2014 marked the end of his ability to intervene in governance, and while Thaksin remained discussed as a bogeyman to the ruling government, his public political activity diminished. 

He returned with gusto in 2019, with his ill-fated decision to run Princess Ubolratana as candidate for prime minister under the Thai Raksa Chart banner, but subsequently political protests in Thailand overshadowed his own political party, Pheu Thai. Afterwards, he was mostly quiet publicly, emerging only to write open letters on the 14th anniversary of the 2006 coup, and to support a local candidate in Chiang Mai. 

Yet throughout all this, one thing is undeniable: rare is a man with so long a political shadow. Also rare is someone so divisive and polarizing. There are few other politicians in Thailand whom people hold such strong opinions about either way. For years, most either saw him as a hero who stood up to Thailand’s establishment on behalf of the common people or a corrupt and morally bankrupt conman who sought nothing more than to enrich himself.

This picture taken on March 25, 2019, shows exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra being interviewed by Agence France-presse in Hong Kong. – Thaksin said Thai the election was ‘rigged’ and marred by ‘irregularities’. (Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP)

Then came along Clubhouse, the audio chatroom app that has taken the world by storm. 

Thaksin — or “Tony,” as he is known on Clubhouse — showed that the 71 year old former prime minister is still the biggest crowd puller in Thai politics. Even as pundits wondered whether changing political attitudes has reduced Thaksin’s relevance, 50,000 people tuned in to hear him by one count.

But something interesting happened during his appearance on Clubhouse. He faced tough questions, and he clearly wasn’t prepared for them. When questioned about the Tak Bai incident, Thaksin fumbled, saying he was sorry about what happened but that “I can’t remember well enough.”

And when asked about the lese-majeste law, Thaksin inconceivably claimed that he has only been following only world issues, not Thai issues. 

It was a surprising moment; Clubhouse is filled with younger people hardly inclined towards the current government. But Thaksin’s sudden memory issues when confronted with difficult questions quickly became the talk of the town. As Twitter’s netizens said, on issues like human rights, Thaksin was “bong” — a failure.

As events on Clubhouse unfolded, another piece of political drama was occurring in parallel: several leaders of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) received prison sentences. 

It feels like a different age, but it was not that long ago when Suthep Thaugsuban was feted around Bangkok as a hero. That would have been inconceivable once upon a time — imagine Dick Cheney leading mass protests and being hailed as a man of the people — but such was the all-consuming hatred against the ‘Thaksin regime’ that drove so many Thais to accept Suthep’s leadership. 

Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (R) collect money as he takes part in a march in Bangkok on March 24, 2014. Thailand’s general election held last month was declared invalid in a ruling from the Constitutional Court on March 21 after disruption by opposition protesters, setting the scene for possible talks between warring political parties about new polls to end the deadlock. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP)

As the PDRC leaders went to jail (and were subsequently released on bail), reactions varied as memories of this crusade against Thaksin resurfaced. Many former PDRC protestors had no change of heart, but others had buyers’ remorse. The ‘Thaksin regime’ had surely been toppled, but has anything really changed? Palang Pracharath now rules, headed ostensibly by the general who felled the last Thaksinite government filled to the core with former Pheu Thai politicians. One evil was displaced with another: was Thaksin not the cause of a rotten system, but rather a symptom? 

Not all opinions on Thaksin, needless to say, has shifted. His image as a self-made billionaire, for one, remains strong, and he received a more favorable Clubhouse event where he dispensed advice for SMEs.

Why one would ask Tony Woodsome, who grew rich mainly off monopolies and close connections, for advice on SMEs is a bit of a mystery. As the Economist wrote in 2001, “The main source of Mr Thaksin’s wealth is precisely the sort of cosy arrangement that Thailand needs to get rid of.” 

And several conservatives still remain as convinced as ever of Thaksin’s evil menace. Yes, much of the heat has now shifted to new bogeymen like Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit — but he, they say, is also a Thaksin lackey. Ultimately, Thaksin is still pulling the strings, they say — a shadowy figure still waiting to pounce.

But I do wonder whether mainstream Thai public opinion, twenty years after he was first elected, is now generally shifting irrevocably. 

After Mao Zedong died, his successor Deng Xiaoping eventually made a revisionist view of the Great Helmsman’s legacy. The chairman, Deng concluded, was far from infallible, for he too made mistakes. Mao was “70 percent good and 30 percent bad.” Deng made sure to emphasize that this was not a knock on Mao, for Deng, too, would be quite happy to be remembered as 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. It was simply a needed rectification of the view that Mao was perfect.

Which way the percentages go on Thaksin will vary according to who you ask. Some will say Thaksin was a good man who made some mistakes. Others will say Thaksin was mostly bad, but did accomplish some positive things. The takeaway is that Thaksin is no longer hero-worshipped or reviled as the root of all evil in quite the same way. 70% bad or 30% good, 70% good or 30% bad: but a mixture of good and bad all the same. 

Re-interpretations of who Thaksin is will continue to happen, and debate over him will continue to rage. Immediately, for example, netizens debated: is Thaksin a royalist, or simply someone who pretends to be one? 

Regardless of where one stands, though, it is a healthy correction of Thaksin’s polarizing public image. A politics that was driven solely by love for, or fear of, Thaksin, was not a politics that would have taken us anywhere. That much has been proven over and over again in Thailand.

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