Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand in August for the first time in fifteen years. Despite his exile, he has remained the de facto leader of the Pheu Thai political party, now the leading force in Thailand's ruling coalition. Considering the criminal charges Shinawatra faced upon his return, he applied for and promptly received a royal pardon. His eight-year sentence was reduced to one year, and he probably will serve his sentence at home or in some other way that avoids prison.
This confluence of events strongly suggests that Thaksin and Pheu Thai struck a deal with the Thai establishment to gain power. To form a government, Pheu Thai assembled a coalition in parliament that gained the acceptance of both the lower house and upper house, the latter of which is composed of senators appointed by a prior junta. The timing seems more than coincidental, and Thaksin’s almost immediate royal pardon makes the likelihood of some kind of deal high. (Check out the Twitter page of a prominent Scottish journalist who focuses on the Thai monarchy, or the page of distinguished Thai academic in exile, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, for more details.)
In its early days leading a coalition that includes the very pro-military parties it previously pledged not to include in its coalition, Pheu Thai has laid out a nascent agenda that adheres to its prior populist tendencies. The party has promised to give ten thousand baht to all Thais over sixteen years old and cut electricity and other utility prices. These types of populist handouts, while valuable in some ways, are not the kind of institutional reform that many Thai voters were demanding. They reflect an outdated mindset from Pheu Thai when cash handouts and other economic populist policies were enough to win over the Thai population. Pheu Thai’s alignment with the Thai conservative establishment has led it to reject the Thai electorate’s demands for structural reform, such as changing the increasingly harsh lese-majeste laws, undertaking root-and-branch reform of the military, or revising the military-created constitution of 2019, which undermines Thai democracy.
Plus, in its newly sworn in cabinet, Pheu Thai has revealed the extent of its horse-trading with other parties, including pro-military parties. The cabinet contains several allegedly problematic figures, including the natural resource and environment minister and the younger brother of Palang Pracharath Party leader General Prawit Wongsuwan, who is a former coup leader. And, potentially even worse: Thamanat Prompow, Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister.
Thamanat has quite a past. As ThaiPBS noted, “Australian newspapers report that Thamanat was arrested in Sydney and convicted of smuggling heroin into the country as a junior Army officer in 1993. He served time in jail before returning to Thailand, only to be arrested again and jailed for three years over the murder of a gay academic. After being appointed deputy agriculture minister in 2019, Thamanat dismissed the Australian drug case as a misunderstanding, claiming he was just an innocent bystander. He said Australian police had merely charged him with failing to report knowledge of drug dealing. However, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Thamanat had pleaded guilty and accepted a four-year minimum jail term before eventually being deported back to Thailand.”
It is not a promising start for Pheu Thai’s attempts to adjust to modern Thailand or for its Cabinet.