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Report from Thailand: Thaksin’s Return?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
February 26, 2010

As a stay this week in Chiang Mai has shown me, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister forced out by a coup in 2006, isn’t going away as a political force. Chiang Mai and the North are Thaksin’s traditional power base, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly everyone I met in the area was convinced that the economy performed better under Thaksin and that the country would go downhill until he returned. Outside one of Chiang Mai’s older temples, vendors had set up stalls selling bumper stickers, CDs, jackets, T-shirts, and many other items featuring Thaksin’s grinning face. Polls show that Puea Thai, the political party that serves as a proxy for Thaksin, would win the most seats in a theoretical national election, the major reason why the ruling Democrat Party seems wary of calling a poll anytime soon.

The ideas that Thaksin trumpeted also have grown into a much broader movement, which has gone unrecognized by elites in Thailand, who despise Thaksin and see his hand behind every protest. Though Thaksin was hardly an example of democracy as a prime minister, he instilled in rural, poor Thais the idea that their votes mattered – they voted for the populist Thaksin, and he delivered populist economic policies – and, unlike every previous Thai politician, he actually had a real political platform designed to reduce economic inequality. For the poor, who have not benefited from growing trade with China or investment from the West and Japan, Thaksin’s policies resonated.

Now, the red-shirted groups (red was Thaksin’s color) that have formed across the North and other parts of Thailand, have built upon Thaksin’s ideas and created their own self-funded social and political networks, broadcasts, and publications. In fact, hundreds of people now descend on the red shirts’ Chiang Mai offices every day because the protest movement has become their community. And Thailand’s elites will find that it’s a lot harder to shut down a community than to get rid of one man.

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  • Posted by Donald Persons

    I concur with the gist of this article. I have lived in Thailand for 28 years, speak the local Chiang Mai language, but now live down in Central Thailand. In all my years here, I have never seen the Northerners so incensed. In 1992 they were perplexed by the fact that their city brought in 10% of the national revenues in tourism, but saw only 2% returned for investment and development of infrastructure. There is another factor: The North’s consciousness as a former Lanna Kingdom whose land was annexed by the current Rattanakosin kings and whose heirs have been attritioned (in a Lauda Airlines “accident” in 1992 among them) coincide with renewal of local language and culture since the 700th Anniversary of Chiang Mai, publication of a Lanna – English – Thai dictionary and educational reform that allowed formulation by local schools of local language courses for children.

    Old hegemony of the imperial Siamese’s 14 million over the north’s 7 million and the Issan 21 million and the South’s 4 million seems to have run its course. I believe that sooner or later we will see old alliances broken and the maps redrawn once again. And the North and Northeast, the Shan State, Laos and the Karen will likely choose to be “democratic” republics with increased economic ties. (I think we’ll have to use this adjective rather loosely as far as I can see).

  • Posted by No Color Thai

    Democrat Party/Aphisit began its regime by handing out freebies to the poor. This was populism at its worse. It is a war of wording.
    I think most of Thaksin’s policies are better called ‘social investment’, which is badly needed in Thailand. Unfortunately, he was too arrogant and underestimated the old elites’ power/network while overestimating the nobleness of their spirit. The bureaucrats were givern both carots and whips, but they want only the carrot, now they got rid of the whip and became as lazy as before with better compensation and no check for their performance.

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