With enemies like this, who needs friends? After years of mutual loathing, coups, chaos and even bloodshed, the fight between Thailand’s military-royalist establishment and controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has ended – for now – in a seismic new deal. The exiled tycoon flew back from self-imposed exile on Tuesday thanks to an unacknowledged political bargain with the army that ousted him. His ally Srettha Thavisin, of the Pheu Thai party, became prime minister on the same day with the support of military-backed parties, breaking the months of deadlock that followed May’s election – and ending a decade of military rule.
Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms entrepreneur turned populist politician, swept to power in 2001 thanks to rural Thais and the urban poor. For a while, he raised their living standards – but he also oversaw massive corruption and grim human rights abuses. After the army toppled him, he was convicted in absentia of abuses of power and chose to stay abroad. Since then, his proxies have triumphed at polls but been thwarted by the conservative elites, with his sister removed as prime minister by another coup in 2014.
Yet now the two sides have forged an improbable alliance. Thaksin went straight to jail on his return – but not for long. Within hours he was moved to hospital, and he is expected to receive a pardon. For conservatives, who regard him as a dangerous and unscrupulous man threatening to overturn the status quo, the idea of allowing him back is disturbing. For the “red shirts” who support him, but who are no mere puppets, getting into bed with the army is horrifying: more than 90 civilians were shot dead in a crackdown on protests in 2010. In one poll, almost 65% of respondents disapproved of Pheu Thai’s cooperation with military-backed parties.
The two sides are united by the realisation that they face a threat greater than each other. Young people, in particular, are sick of the establishment. Their parents may see it as safeguarding stability; they view it as crushing prosperity and freedom. The opposition won by a landslide in May’s elections. But the real surprise was that Move Forward – a progressive new party that has pledged to demilitarise politics, break up monopolies and reform the draconian lese-majesty law – leapfrogged Pheu Thai. Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, is the prime minister Thais wanted. But he is not the prime minister they are getting, because military-appointed senators blocked him.
Pheu Thai had backed Pita, having insisted in campaigning that it would not work with the army – but now it says it has no choice but to cooperate, to tackle the country’s floundering economy. In government, the military has proved inept as well as authoritarian and corrupt. Thailand is falling further behind its peers. Thaksin is also aware that Move Forward has supplanted his forces as the voice of opposition and democracy – and, at 74, his prospects of returning were dwindling. On the other hand, conservative forces presumably believe they can use him to see off Move Forward while containing him – and know he loses credibility by allying with them.
This deal cannot be the basis for successful or even stable government. The Thai population is once again sidelined while those at the top play power games. Yet it has long been clear that such politicking cannot erase the nation’s underlying transformation. Thailand’s people deserve better – and increasingly, they are demanding it.