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Thai protesters may be seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. But the real object of their anger is someone who isn’t officially part of the government: her brother and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin is a polarizing political figure: he is wildly popular among rural voters, who have helped his party win the last three out of four last elections, and hated by Bankok’s elite and urban middle-class, who are now on the streets demonstrating against his sister’s rule.

Thaksin served as Thailand’s prime minister for five years until 2006, when he was ousted in a military coup amidst allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Since the coup, he has been living abroad—most recently in Dubai.

With Thaksin still in exile, Yingluck led her Pheu Thai party to victory in 2011 elections and became prime minister.

Once in office, she proposed an amnesty bill that would allow her brother to return to Thailand without facing trial on any of the corruption charges against him. The protesters believe that Thaksin, even in exile, is still controlling the current Thai government.

A pro-government supporter passes t-shirts with portraits of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her self-exiled brother Thaksin at the gate of the National Anti-Corruption Commission office in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Wally Santana

A pro-government supporter passes t-shirts with portraits of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her self-exiled brother Thaksin at the gate of the National Anti-Corruption Commission office in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Wally Santana

Police Officer, to Billionaire, to Prime Minister

Born in northern Thailand in 1949, Thaksin was working as a police officer until he received a scholarship to study in the U.S. in 1973, where he went on to obtain a master’s degree in criminal justice from Eastern Kentucky University. When he returned to Thailand he went into business, and by the late 1980s, developed a successful telecommunications empire.

Thaksin became involved in politics in 1998. He campaigned on offers of better medical care and debt relief for the poor, a message popular with rural voters. He blamed many of the country’s ills on the “Bangkok elite.”

Thaksin’s party won the 2001 election with a 40.6% of votes. He was able to lead an elected government through a full four-year term in office, becoming the first prime minister in Thailand’s history to be able to do so.

Bolstering his popularity was his successful handling of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which destroyed parts of southwestern Thailand. In 2005, he won re-election.

However, corruption scandals have haunted Thaksin. He has been accused of buying the votes of people in rural and poor areas and has been accused of illegally influencing a land purchase deal. In 2003, while still prime minister, Thaksin bought a prime plot of land in Bangkok from a government agency for $24 million—about one-third the price of an earlier valuation.

But Thaksin’s biggest problem came from the sale of about $2 billion worth of stock holdings in satellite, telecommunications and news media concerns to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. Opponents were angered after learning Thaksin did not pay tax on the deal, and had set up a series of paper corporations to hide his interest in the companies while prime minister. The revelations led to protests and eventually a military coup that forced him from government in 2006.

Thaksin initially fled to London, vowing to return to Thailand to face corruption charges only if he was guaranteed a fair trial. He returned in 2008 and was sentenced to two years in prison. However, he fled Thailand again before being jailed and hasn’t returned.

Leading Via Skype

Even as the country’s most famous fugitive, Thaksin remains popular in rural areas. During his years in exile, Thaksin has been in contact with the ministers of the Pheu Thai party, influencing their decisions.

“We can contact him at all hours,” Charupong Ruangsuwan, the interior minister and secretary general of the party, told The New York Times, “If we’ve got a problem, we give him a call.”

According to The New York Times, Mr. Thaksin uses Skype and various social media applications like Whatsapp and Line to get in touch with the leaders of the party.

“He’s the one who formulates the Pheu Thai policies,” Noppadon Pattama, a senior official in Mr. Thaksin’s party, told the newspaper. “Almost all the policies put forward during the last election came from him.”

Protesters in Thailand claim that the best proof of Mr. Thaksin’s influence on the country’s politics was the 2011 general elections, in which his younger sister Yingluck swept to victory in her first run for office.

Before coming to the spotlight of Thai politics, Ms. Yingluck had been working as a managing director of AIS, the telecommunications firm owned by her brother. She is the first woman to serve as a prime minister in Thailand.

Thy Brother’s Keeper

Yingluck has faced criticism from the opposition Democrat Party that she is merely her brother’s puppet. Her unsuccessful effort to pass an amnesty law for Thaksin did little to dispel this perception.

Yingluck herself has dismissed such criticism, and said that her brother serves as “moral support”.

“My family is a political family plus I have experience in business – I have been running a listed company for 20 years – so I will use the two competencies together to help Thailand improve, especially in terms of the economy,” Ms. Yingluck told the BBC after her 2011 victory.

Anti-government protesters stomp on a poster of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Anti-government protesters stomp on a poster of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Yingluck’s effort to retain her family’s popularity with farmers and rural voters suffered a setback after her government launched a controversial rice-buying scheme.

That effort, which involved a government plan to stockpile rice in hopes of selling it later for a higher price, has resulted in $4.5 billion in losses and demonstrations by farmers who did not receive their payments from the government. The effort also cost the country its position as the world’s largest rice exporter after it was passed by India and Vietnam in 2012.
Protesters want the Shinawatra siblings out of government—and hope to install an unelected “people’s council.”

“The people will quit only when the state power is in their hands,” Suthep Thaugsuban, the main leader of the opposition party, told the BBC. “If we don’t succeed, then I am prepared to die in the battlefield.”

 

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