Parole for Thaksin suggests a new era for Thai politics

Thaksin Shinawatra's early release from prison in Thailand is perceived as part of a strategic compromise with adversaries to counter the rising influence of the anti-establishment Move Forward party.

FILE PHOTO: Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra walks at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

The early release of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s formerly fugitive ex-Prime Minister, is perceived by many as a compromise he struck with his adversaries to counter a perceived greater threat to the traditional royalist-military order.

In the intricate landscape of Thai politics, Thaksin’s parole following his return from self-imposed exile in August is viewed as the latest move in a complex strategy to suppress the increasingly popular anti-establishment Move Forward party, which emerged as the top contender in the previous year’s election.

Move Forward, advocating for institutional reforms including limited reforms concerning the monarchy, faced obstruction in forming a government due to a Senate appointed by the 2014 junta, which overthrew a government led by Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party.

Shortly after, Pheu Thai, which had aligned its campaign agenda with Move Forward’s aim of reducing military influence in politics, formed a coalition government inclusive of individuals involved in the 2014 coup.

Simultaneously, Thaksin, aged 74, returned to Thailand via private jet, surrendered to authorities on outstanding criminal charges, and was admitted to a police hospital citing health concerns until his eligibility for parole.

Analysts speculate that Thaksin’s return is linked to a tacit agreement with the establishment, despite denials from his family, party, and Thai authorities. This speculation arises from the perception that Thaksin, although challenging the patronage system, is perceived as less threatening than Move Forward, especially due to its proposals for amending, not abolishing, laws restricting criticism of the monarchy.

Thaksin’s past confrontations with Thailand’s establishment, a coalition of the military and entrenched business interests, stemmed from his populist policies, accusations of corruption, and alleged disrespect towards the monarchy.

The evolving political landscape, characterized by a cycle of pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” and anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirt” protests, culminated in the 2014 coup against a pro-Thaksin government.

The resurgence of an anti-establishment movement, epitomized by the success of Move Forward’s predecessor in the 2019 elections, followed by student-led protests questioning traditional Thai institutions, created a new dynamic. Move Forward’s refusal to compromise on amending laws protecting the monarchy led to a parliamentary deadlock and garnered resistance from conservative and military-aligned factions.

Thaksin’s seamless return to Thailand without facing imprisonment suggests a strategic alignment between him and the establishment to thwart the ascendance of Move Forward. In this narrative, Thaksin transitions from a formidable adversary to a manipulated figure serving the interests of the reorganized establishment.

Ultimately, Thaksin’s return underscores the intricate power dynamics shaping Thailand’s political landscape, where erstwhile foes forge alliances to maintain control and stave off perceived existential threats.

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