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  • An Exiled Leader Breaks His SilenceA Conversation with Thaksin Shinawatra
  • Thaksin Shinawatra

For one of the world’s most polarizing individuals, Thaksin Shinawatra cuts an understated figure. The soft-spoken former prime minister of Thailand has been in self-imposed exile since his ouster a decade ago, but from his primary residence in Dubai, his words still reverberate across Southeast Asia.

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Fifteen years ago, Thaksin was elected prime minister, and he instituted agricultural microcredit loans, fuel subsidies, infrastructure investments, and universal health care. The country’s rural poor hailed him as a leader willing to stand up to the traditional elites in Bangkok. He was the first elected Thai prime minister to serve a full term and was re-elected in 2005 in a landslide.

But his tenure marked a growing rift between the middle class in the cities and the rural and working-class Thais who adored him. In 2006, following massive protests from the opposition, the military staged a coup, setting the stage for a decade-long, sometimes bloody, power struggle (including a military-backed coup that ousted his sister, Yingluck, from her post as prime minister in 2014).

Today, Thaksin’s enemies paint him as diabolical puppet master, supporting and controlling his supporters from his homes abroad. They point out that as prime minister he launched a “war on drugs,” which, according to Human Rights Watch, involved 2,800 extrajudicial killings in just its first three months.

But no one denies his influence. Parties that support Thaksin have won every Thai election since 2001. Periodically—in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014—tens of thousands of protesters fill Bangkok’s streets, sometimes in support of Thaksin and other times to rally against him. But his image is always at the center of the demonstrations—sometimes worn proudly on red T-shirts and other times burned in effigy.

After more than two years of public silence, the former prime minister sat down with World Policy Journal in New York City. [End Page 57]

World Policy Journal:

You recently distributed coffee-table books and calendars to many of your supporters; you’re speaking to the press again; you’re speaking to us. Why are you re-emerging onto the public stage now?

Thaksin Shinawatra:

I try to be low key and give a chance for the regime to solve whatever problems it has. They said that they want reconciliation. But watching for quite a long time, reconciliation is not there. It’s the opposite; they’re creating more rifts among the Thai people. So it’s time for me to talk, because the new constitution is being drafted. And the way they draft the constitution is very worrisome. I want to see my country moving forward, but this is a backward constitution. That’s why I want to voice my concern. I don’t care whether I go back home or not. I just care about how to move our country forward, and how the rule of law is respected, and how the dignity of the Thai people must be respected. So that’s the reason why I want to express my concern.


You mention the proposed constitution. What is it in particular that concerns you about the constitution, and what would need to change for you to support it?


We used to have a very modern constitution, which was implemented in 1997, during my administration. We did not draft it; we were the ones who came after that constitution was in effect. But I think that was one of the best [constitutions] Thailand ever had. But after the coup d’état, they wrote it again, which is worse than the one in 1997. Now the constitution is not to the international standard. We don’t have a guarantee of human rights or democracy. It’s the opposite; they increased the power of the constitutional court, which has too much power already. All the power is un-checked. It’s not balanced, giving more power to the judicial side. And the senators are appointed, all 200 members of the senate will be appointed.


By whom...


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pp. 57-61
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