Thaksin Shinawatra (pictured left with his sister, Yingluck, the current Thai prime minister) is undoubtedly the most controversial politician ever to become prime minister of Thailand, an oft-ignored country in Southeast Asia with a population and landmass greater than Britain or Italy. (But who besides a Thai knows this?) Elected several times in national elections deemed to be relatively fair and open, he was pushed out by a sadly misconceived military coup in 2006 and has been working out of his exile in Dubai since then in effort to return.
The energetic 63-year-old telecommunications pioneer doesn’t let grass grow under his feet, however, and this month has been bouncing around the United States looking for love among Thai exile groups, meeting with the usual VIPS (the Henry Kissingers and so on), and trying to make new friends. Except for one anti-Thaksin demonstration in Los Angeles, it has been smooth going here in the U.S.. One stop was at Loyola Marymount University, where faculty, students and administrators met him for dinner or over tea — or (assuming they were at least 21) wine.
Thaksin, though famous, was a mystery man to all of them, in the sense that all they knew of this populist politician was what media has wanted them to know. Not exactly the full picture: From much of the Thai media, that only meant bad things (he was corrupt, he was power mad, he was an insincere champion of the neglected poor). And from the international media, well, there is never much about Thailand in it, except he was some kind of fugitive – though from the questionable justice of a court that on its own convicted him of abuse of office for personal gain.
For his part Thaksin not only believes he doesn’t deserves jail but also that his many millions of backers wouldn’t stand for it. A return home under such circumstances, he strongly feels, would be politically destabilizing. He proposes amnesty for everyone, and national reconciliation. His goal is simply to return to his country, pledging flatly at two LMU sessions that he has no ambition to resume any effort to win high office, much preferring to help his young sister Yingluck Shinawatra, now the country’s prime minister, govern troubled Thailand successfully.
That means any number of daily phone calls over the one of six cell-phones he carries, and all kinds of advice to her, whether sought by her or not. When an especially sharp LMU student asked Thaksin point-blank whether this well-known “advisory role” was in his sister’s interest—whether it might not seem as if she were some kind of Thaksin puppet, thus undermining her stature – the former PM shrugged as having heard this criticism before, and answered simply that for decades his relationship with her had been as a father to a daughter and it was much too late to alter that.
Thaksin was pressed repeatedly for secrets of governance and he seemed very happy to provide one sound bite after another. My personal favorite was undoubtedly his trashing of all government economists, whom he implied are not more reliable than weather forecasters. They repeatedly rely on outdated or partial data and sometimes pointedly ignore political factors and inherent uncertainty. As for the United States and its role in Asia, he praised improvements in U.S. efforts made by the Obama administration, and especially the performance of the current U.S. ambassador Kristie Kenney. As for U.S. secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much-publicize “pivot” of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia after many decades of preoccupation with Europe and the Middle East, Thaksin smiled that trademark impish grin, applauded the effort but begged the U.S. to keep piling on the resources and to work harder at achieving a genuine world-view reorientation.
His LMU audience wanted to know whether he was in fear of China but clearly he was not. He felt the issues were complex and that the ruling elite in China, as it moves to establish a new national government (not unlike the U.S. right now, in fact), is coping with many internal, nationalistic pressures. They also wanted to know his assessment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Thaksin praised her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, suggested it was the only option for this key neighbor of Thailand, but warned that the military still had too much power.
The former PM might have added that the country formerly known as Burma was hardly the only Southeast Asia nation with an overly powerful military. After all, the coup against him was not executed by outside terrorists but by Thailand’s regular military. This was shameful, of course. Whatever Thaksin’s faults as a human being and as a political leader, he did not deserve undemocratic eviction and neither did Thailand. The negative consequences of this huge blunder by the Thai establishment are still being felt but even worse yet is that the elite seems in the main not to understand this.
The fact of the matter is whether one is talking about North Korea or Egypt or of any number of Third World countries, rule by the military is a very bad idea. In Thailand, it is an absurdity. That society has considerable political talent. Everyone should be allowed to compete. The military should stay out of it. Whatever one thinks of Thaksin, the Thaksin coup precedent sells Thailand way short and should not be allowed to stand.
American career journalist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at LMU in Los Angeles and is the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series, which includes ‘Conversations with Thaksin,’ published last year.