CHIANGRAI TIMES – Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra is taking a more visible role for Thailand and across Asia, stirring renewed tensions between the country’s powerful military and a new government led by the populist tycoon’s sister.
During the run-up to July’s national elections, Mr. Thaksin, 64 years old, repeatedly said he would avoid intervening in political decisions if his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, were elected prime minister. At most, he said, he would help guide Ms. Yingluck—who took office last month—on economic policy.
Political analysts said that was a carefully scripted strategy to tamp down tension between the Shinawatra clan’s populist supporters and Thailand’s powerful armed forces, which ousted Mr. Thaksin in a bloodless coup five years ago and still retain considerable power.
Supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra rallied last week on the fifth anniversary of the coup that toppled him.
Mr. Thaksin recently has taken heavily publicized trips from his base in Dubai to Japan and Cambodia while his supporters push for a new amnesty law that would enable him to return to Thailand a free man. He has been living overseas to avoid imprisonment on a 2008 corruption conviction.
His sister’s government is now exploring whether it should give him his passport back, arguing that Mr. Thaksin was convicted for political reasons; he currently travels on a passport issued by Montenegro.
Stock investors, meanwhile, are turning against Ms. Yingluck’s plans to raise Thailand’s minimum wage as the local stock market slumps amid a global downturn. The Federation of Thai Capital Market Associations Monday urged the government to defer the wage rises, set for January, that could nearly double the minimum wage in some places to 300 baht, or $9.60, a day.
Last week, Mr. Thaksin summoned cabinet ministers from the ruling Puea Thai, or For Thais, party to a lengthy videoconference, instructing them how to handle severe flooding in Thailand’s rice-growing heartland, among other topics.
Ms. Yingluck, a 44-year-old former business executive, tried to play down Mr. Thaksin’s lecture, saying he was just offering support. Neither Mr. Thaksin nor his legal representatives responded to requests to comment.
For many observers the implication is clear. “A couple of months ago, I’d say there were two prime ministers in Thailand—Ms. Yingluck and her brother,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Now there is one—Mr. Thaksin.”
The question is how Thailand’s conservative power brokers, particularly the army, will react to Mr. Thaksin’s newfound assertiveness, and whether it will reignite the battle between populist politicians such as the Shinawatras and the country’s conservative, royalist bureaucrats and army chiefs.
Thailand’s top generals appear determined to prevent Mr. Thaksin or his sister from interfering with the military. People familiar with the situation say an annual army leadership shuffle this month will likely leave hawkish army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha at the helm and many of his key lieutenants in their jobs.
Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai military and a lecturer at Payap University in northern Thailand, notes that after the 2006 coup, a military-appointed government introduced a new seven-member panel to decide on army appointments. Four members of this panel must be serving military officers, a safeguard that effectively vetoes any civilian influence over the shuffle.
Even if the government tries to remove Gen. Prayuth, it wouldn’t be able to choose his successor—so he would likely stay as acting chief.
“The conservative forces have found a way of preventing Mr. Thaksin from controlling the military, even if they allow him and his followers to win election,” Mr. Chambers said.
Besides looking for a way to help bring Mr. Thaksin back to Thailand through a possible amnesty, some lawmakers are pushing to amend laws introduced since the 2006 coup that reduce civilian control over the army. Analysts say this could further ratchet up tensions, as does a continuing wrestling match between the government and Gen. Prayuth for control of a powerful army-dominated security agency known as the Internal Security Operations Command.
“Mr. Thaksin wants to legitimize himself as a political leader, but the other side doesn’t want to give ground either,” said Somchai Phagapasvivat, a political-science professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “There’s a looming conflict, and in the long run we don’t know how it will play out.”