In Corrupt America: International Edition — Thaksin Shinawatra

In Corrupt America: International Edition — Thaksin Shinawatra

This week, we step out of America and into the mysterious jungles of Thailand for some international scumbaggery.

They set fire to the barricades, the stock exchange, the mall and the newspaper offices, sending dark clouds of billowing smoke into the Bangkok air. All around, gun shots rang out, as a tank plowed through a makeshift wall built of burning tires. From the video on the BBC, it looked like the city was being destroyed. In response to the mayhem, Thai troops had stormed the encampment occupied by anti-government protestors called “the redshirts,” who had just lit the Thai capital on fire. After the showdown, their two month stay in the center of the city was over, a reign that had left 88 people dead. A week later, a Thai court issued an arrest warrant for the man they believed to be behind all the anti-government violence: Thaksin Shinawatra, their former prime minister.

Born in 1949, Shinawatra began his career as a police officer. While still in the force, he started multiple businesses with his wife, including a silk shop, a movie theater, even buying up an apartment building. Each venture was a miserable failure, leaving Shinawatra in huge debt. In order to claw his way out, the man began a few unsuccessful forays into telecommunications, finally hitting it big with his Advanced Info Service. The company began as a computer rental service, but eventually expanded out in multiple directions, most notably into mobile phones. By the 1990s, the Shinawatra family had built an empire.

It was an easy leap from there into politics. In 1998, Shinawatra founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party that would stand in opposition to the old guard from the Democratic Party. Shinawatra was hugely popular, especially among the rural poor, and rode a landslide into office thanks to his cheap medical care and debt relief, his nationalist campaign platform and his hatred of the “Bangkok elite.” His time in office was historic: Shinawatra was the first Prime Minister to serve a full term, and his rule, some say, was one of the most distinctive in the country’s modern history. The former policeman instituted many “eye-catching” policies while in office, reshaping the landscape of Thai politics in the process and earning two re-election victories. But in 2006, everything would change.

In April of that year, the Shinawatra family decided to sell all of its shares in one of Thailand’s biggest telecom groups, Shin Corp, netting the family $1.9 billion. This did not make many Thais happy, especially the ones who believed Shinawatra was avoiding paying taxes and handing off an important national asset to Singapore investors. Demonstrators took to the streets, ultimately leading Shinawatra to call a snap general election. “Put up or shut up,” Shinawatra cried out to his opponents, but, unfortunately, the election didn’t work in the way the Prime Minister hoped. Instead of voting for either side, the opposition boycotted the polls and many voters chose to register a “no vote.” After the election, Shinawatra announced that he would step down, but by May he was back in office. By September, however, a military coup would force him out, as they seized power while the Prime Minister was out of the country.

But again, the situation would seemingly flip. After his allies won the first post-coup election, Shinawatra returned to Thailand, expecting nothing to come of the earlier problems of his rule. This was not so. Upon their homecoming, Shinawatra and his wife faced criminal charges for corruption, and with a greatly empowered court backed by a new military constitution vigorously pursuing multiple cases against them, both were sentenced to jail terms. But that wasn’t everything: The courts even froze all of the family’s assets, forcing Shinawatra to sell his controlling stake in Manchester United, which we had bought while out of the country from the coup. In order to avoid the jail time, Shinawatra fled the country and has remained in exile since.

However, back in Thailand, Shinawatra still had vigorous supporters in the redshirts. When Shinawatra’s allies lost power in 2008, this group of protesters took the streets, often displaying their former leader’s face on huge screens before staging their demonstrations. Tensions between the parties grew hot, and many believe Shinawatra was the one stoking the fire from his self-imposed exile in Dubai and Montenegro. In May of 2010, Bangkok exploded in riots as the redshirts attempted to burn down some of the cities biggest landmarks. After police were forced to respond, fights ensued, leaving multiple dead and the city smoldering. A week later, a Thai court took the next step and issued a warrant for the arrest of Thaksin Shinawatra.