Big Mess in Little Thailand – Your Guide To Understanding The Political Turmoil in Thailand

Thailand Political Turmoil - EPA image
Thailand Political Turmoil - EPA image

If you’re like me, you have been looking at the Thailand mess with curiosity. Hasn’t this protesting been going on for what seems like forever? Who’s in the “right?” Who’s in the “wrong.” And why don’t people in Thailand like their airports or their tourism industry? Being in Asia, and liking Thailand as a great vacation get-a-way, I’ve been trying to keep up with what is going on, but found myself awfully confused. The other day I was trying to explain what is happening there and came to realize I had no real understanding of the events that lead up to today.

So, I set to read up on the last 3 years, and figure out the timeline of who did what, when, and why. Since I hadn’t understood the situation, I figure that some of you might also be in the dark and appreciate the following timeline and background:

In short, they’re all a bunch of professional politicians. There are two different ‘sides’ that are each accusing the other of voter fraud and corruption (among others). What makes Thailand different is that in this democracy, the people there tend to be involved in the political process, and appear to be more easily swayed by ‘their’ politician’s rhetoric.

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Thaksin Shinawatra was a successful telecom entrepreneur and one of the richest people in Thailand.

Thaksin Shinawatra was elected in 2001, and reelected in 2005 with the highest voter turnout in Thai history. He is behind the current protests and openly pushing for a revolution. Whether for him or against him, Thaksin has been much of the reason for Thailand’s political mess for the last 3 years.

Pros:

  • Thaksin introduced a range of partly effective and highly popular policies to alleviate rural poverty.
  • He launched the country’s first universal healthcare program, the 30-baht scheme, as well as drastic social order and drug suppression campaigns

Cons:

  • His government has been accused (and often convicted) of “corruption, authoritarianism, treason, conflicts of interest, acting non-diplomatically and muzzling the press.”
  • Thaksin was accused of tax evasion, lèse majesté and selling national assets to international investors.
  • Independent bodies, including Amnesty International criticized Thaksin’s human rights record.

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January 2001 – Thaksin won the first election for Prime Minister under the 1997 Constitution.

  • This election was called the most open, corruption-free election in Thai history.
  • The subsequent government was the first in Thai history to complete a 4-year term.

February 6, 2005 – Thaksin was reelected in a a landslide victory.

  • This election had the highest voter turnout (60.7%) in history
  • The election had wide spread vote buying and electoral violence
  • Thaksin’s government was accused of violating election law by abusing state power in presenting new projects in a bid to seek votes.

January 23, 2006 – Thaksin’s family nets about US$1.88 billion, tax-free, from the sale of one of Thailand’s largest conglomerates to a Singapore company

  • This sale sparked a series of angry demonstrations in the capital.
  • The pressure against Thaksin continues to grow as he becomes accused of corruption and selling an asset of national importance to a foreign entity.

February 24, 2006 – Thaksin announced a House dissolution and schedules a general election for April 2, 2006.

February 27, 2006 – The opposition parties announce to boycott the election after Thaksin refused to sign a pledge to implement constitutional reforms.

  • Abhisit Vejjajiva is quoted saying that “under the current circumstance, a fair general election was unlikely.”

April 2, 2006 – Thaksin and his TRT party ‘wins’ the election

  • Opposition voters used the “abstain” option on their ballot papers to reject Thaksin and his party’s candidates
  • The election is not seen as legitimate due to the widespread use of the abstain option
    40 TRT candidates failed to win the minimum 20% required in an uncontested election

May 8, 2006 – The election was declared invalid by Thailand’s Constitutional Court, because the positioning of the voting booths violated voter privacy.

  • A new election was ordered and set for October 15, 2006

September 19, 2006 – While Thaksin is visiting New York, the military takes over the government in a bloodless military coup.

  • The King is made head of state, and they said elections would be held soon to return democracy to the country.
  • Thaksin remains in exile, living in London with his family

October 2006 – Surayud Chulanont became the interim Prime Minister until January 2008.

May 30, 2007 – Thaksin and over 100 members in Thaksin’s TRT party are banned from politics for 5 years, based on bribes during the April 2006 election

  • Surayud states Thaksin is free to return to Thailand, and he would personally guarantee his safety

January 2008 – Thaksin’s wife returns to Thailand and is arrested for violation of stock-trading and land sale laws.

  • She is released and told not to leave the country

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January 29, 2008 – Samak Sundaravej is elected Prime Minister by parliamentary vote (310 to 163)

  • Samak’s has very close ties to Thaksin’s (he earlier appointed Samak to his cabinet)
  • It is widely accepted that Samak is a puppet for Thaksin, who is effectively ruling Thailand through Samak

February 2008 – Thaksin returns to Thailand after 17 months in exile. He is arrested on arrival for corruption, and released on bail

August 10, 2008 – Thaksin and his wife flew to Beijing for the Summer Olympics, in violation of their bail terms.

  • Thaksin seeks political asylum in Britain
  • Warrants are issued for Thaksin’s arrest

September 2008 – Wearing Yellow Shirts, Anti-Samak/Thaksin Protests erupt and effectively shut down Bangkok.

September 9, 2008 – The courts convict Samak of being employed by two cooking shows while in office, in violation of the law.

  • Samak is removed from power by the Constitutional Court of Thailand

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September 17, 2008 – Somchai Wongsawat is elected Prime Minister by the National Assembly,

  • Somchai’s brother-in-law is Thaksin Shinawatra.
  • Somchai is also seen as a proxy for Thaksin

October 7, 2008 – Many people become angry that Thaksin is now effectually ruling Thailand through Somchai

  • 30,000 Anti-Somchai/Thaksin Protesters block off the Parliament building for 6 weeks
  • Somchai is unable to access his offices

October 21, 2008 – The Supreme Court finds Thaksin and his wife guilty of a land purchase (conflict of interest) and are sentenced in absentia to 2 years in jail.

November 25, 2008 – Anti Somchai/Thaksin protesters wearing yellow shirts, shut down Bangkok’s airports

December 2nd, 2008 – The Supreme Court convicts Somchai of corruption and neglecting his duties while working in the justice department 8 years ago.

  • Constitutional Court of Thailand barred Somchai from politics for a minimum of 5 years
  • Somchai’s party (PPP) was disolved by the courts due to election fraud (vote buying)
  • Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat resigns and the protesters occupying the airports agreed to withdraw

December 17th, 2008 – Leader of the opposition, Abhisit Vejjajiva becomes Prime Minister

  • Abhisit has been a vocal critic of Thaksin for years
  • The Army commander (also the co-leader of the 2006 coup) was widely reported to have coerced many MPs to defect to Abhisit’s political party

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March 2009 – Thaksin (in exile) publicly claims Abhisit conspired with the military and others in government to remove Thaksin from power in the 2006 coup and had bribed and coerced many members of Parliament in order to ensure that Abhisit became Prime Minister.

  • Thaksin’s supporters believe Mr Abhisit was illegitimately elected Prime Minister after the military coerced several MPs defected to his side
  • Red-Shirt Protesters begin rallying in Bangkok, demanding Abhisit Vejjajiva’s resignation and the dissolution of the government

April 2009 – In nightly phone addresses from exile, Thaksin calls for a revolution, and urges soldiers to join his campaign to overthrow the Government.

April 11, 2009 – Anti Abhisit government / Pro-Thaksin Protesters (wearing red shirts) break into the hotel & venue site of the ASEAN summit,

  • The 4th ASEAN summit is canceled
  • Visiting foreign leaders are airlifted out of the country to protect them from mobs.
  • Protesters demand the Abhisit’s resignation as well as the other conspirators responsible for the 2006 military coup and for electing Abhisit Prime Minister

April 12 – Abhisit declared a state of emergency

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This post was written by Bryan Stadelmann, who has been in China for the last 6 years.  He is currently living in Shanghai and consulting for private business clients.  If you are looking to do business or invest in China, you can reach him at Bryan@Stadelmann.com. Make sure to tell him where you got his email address.

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