BANGKOK — After two weeks of noisy protests, the message from the streets of Bangkok is clear: There will be no immediate homecoming for Thailand’s most polarizing political figure, Thaksin Shinawatra.
The former prime minister has waited five years—the last two with his own sister in power—to come home from self-imposed exile as a free man. But broad-based protests over a proposed deal for his return, largely ending with the frantic extinguishing of a bill that would have erased a corruption conviction, suggest that wait is far from over.
Analysts say the misstep by the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party suggests that Thaksin, the country’s most powerful politician, may be losing his grip on Thai politics.
“I think it means that Mr. Thaksin perhaps lost his ability to calculate or to predict the Thai political landscape,” said Veerapat Pariyawong, an independent scholar.
“This is Thaksin’s problem,” said Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a law lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “He’s too hotheaded and then makes a mistake.”
It’s understandable that the former prime minister might be frustrated. Supporting pro-Thaksin parties through two successful election campaigns—in 2007 and 2011—and funding the grassroots pro-Thaksin Red Shirts organization—and likely many under-the-table deals—has probably cost the billionaire businessman-politician millions of dollars, but still failed to free him from the threat of time behind bars.
He was ousted in 2006 after middle class-led protests in Bangkok accusing him of corruption, rights violations and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej paved the way for a military coup. The action hit both his pride and his wallet: More than a billion dollars of his assets were seized.
The coup also sparked years of sometimes-violent struggle for political power between Thaksin’s supporters and opponents, hitting a nadir in 2010 when an army crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators led to the deaths of more than 90 people.
Thaksin was convicted in 2008 of violating a conflict-of-interest law and fled abroad to escape a two-year jail term. Paving the way for his return has been the unspoken priority of Yingluck’s government.
After smoothing relations with the army and the palace, Yingluck’s government made its move last month, submitting a political amnesty bill to Parliament. Its original version would have let rank-and-file violators of all camps off the hook for politically linked offenses, but not leaders of political factions. It didn’t kick up much of a fuss beyond a small circle of hardcore anti-Thaksinites, who warned it was a trick to lay out the welcome mat for the former prime minister.
They were right.
After the House of Representatives passed the original bill in principle, it was amended in committee to also cover political big-shots, including Thaksin.
The bait-and-switch tactic flopped badly, sparking anger and disappointment among many Thaksin opponents as well as supporters. Those unhappy with the bill included some Red Shirts who were angered that the amended bill did not apply to people accused of violating the country’s harsh law against insulting the monarchy.
Some Red Shirts who lost friends and relatives in the 2010 army crackdown also were angry that justice would not be done, and especially that Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister at the time, would not be held accountable. Nonpartisan opposition came from human rights groups, who opposed the amnesty for perpetuating impunity for officials.
Thaksin, in a statement released by his lawyer, complained that the amnesty bill “has been criticized and turned into a political issue to slander me, to distort the message that it is to return the money and whitewash the wrongdoings for only one man even though the true purpose of the amnesty law is to let the country move beyond the conflict and to return justice to the victims of the 2006 coup.”
But faced with growing anger that could fracture its own political base, Yingluck’s government signaled that it would let the bill die, and the Senate voted unanimously against it on Monday. The more powerful House could still revive the bill after 180 days, but Yingluck pledged it would not.
Thaksin’s opponents had hoped to build on the anti-amnesty movement to launch a campaign to oust Yingluck’s government. But once the Senate rejected the bill, the growing political crisis was quickly deflated. A dramatic call by the opposition Democrat Party for civil disobedience fell flat.
Thaksin, meanwhile, must bide his time.
“The Pheu Thai party must know what lessons they’ve learned from trying to force the people to accept their action,” said Prinya, who like many other observers believes that the bill’s rejection has delayed any hopes that Thaksin may have of returning home soon.
“At this point, Thaksin has to keep a low-profile,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun , an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. But he said Thaksin remains “a significant factor in Thai politics.”
“If push comes to shove, Thaksin can press the election button and expect to win again,” political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University wrote in an op-ed for the Bangkok Post newspaper last week. “For the Red Shirts and Pheu Thai voters, deploring the amnesty bill is not the same as voting for the opposition party. Pheu Thai will most likely win an election again if one were held tomorrow. This is Thaksin’s ultimate fallback position.”