Why was Thailand's prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ousted?

click to enlarge Why was Thailand's prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ousted? - Andisheh Nouraee
Andisheh Nouraee
Why was Thailand's prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ousted?

There's a debate going at the moment about the qualifications for office of our presidential candidates. Like many political discussions in the good ol' U.S. of A, it's taken an angry, irrational tone. This week, I offer solace.

I want Republicans and Democrats alike to take comfort in knowing that, despite its flaws, our system could be a lot worse.

We could be Thailand.

Don't get me wrong. Thailand has a lot going for it. It's high on my list of 1,001 places to visit before I die(t). The people seem very kind. At least the ones I've met. Its economy is dynamic. The food is amazing.

And based on a Google search, Thai ladyboys are considered among the most attractive women with penises in the entire world.

Thailand has also made great strides toward democracy and political stability in recent years. In 1997, Thais ratified a new constitution enshrining human rights like freedom of peaceful assembly, the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings, gender equality and freedom of religion.

Elections in 2001 were considered the fairest and most open in Thai history. And the government elected that year served for four years, the first time an elected government served a complete term uninterrupted.

Unfortunately, the whole thing started to go wobbly in 2005. That's when Thai voters re-elected the Thai Rak Thai party (it means Thais love Thais) led by its self-made gazillionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was popular among rural Thais because he was the first leader anyone could remember who seemed genuinely dedicated to the development of poor communities. The government in Bangkok started pouring boatloads of bhat (money) on things like rural health care, education and infrastructure.

Thailand's urban voters weren't impressed. Nor were they too keen on what they perceived as his government's corruption, illegal killings committed in the name of fighting drug trafficking, or ham-handed efforts quelling a Muslim insurgency in the south of the country. Get it? Muslim insurgency? Ham-handed? Never mind.

In September 2006, with the tacit backing of Thailand's revered king, the Thai army tossed Thaksin in what was undoubtedly the most polite military coup against a democratically elected government in recent history.

Soldiers showed up at government buildings and told Thaksin's government to leave. They did. Then a general apologized on TV to the nation for any inconvenience the tanks in the streets may have caused.

Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai were banned. But that wasn't the last Thais heard from Thaksin.

In 2007, he was elected president of the Professional Golf Association of Thailand.

And in January 2008, his party, which reformed under the new name People's Power Party, was elected with an even bigger share of the parliament than it had before the coup.

With Thaksin still in exile, Samak Sundaravej took the premiership. A self-proclaimed proxy for Thaksin, Prime Minister Samak was best-known to the Thai public as a longtime host of a TV cooking program called "Tasting and Complaining."

Annoyed at their inability to thwart Thaksinism at the ballot box, mobs of supporters of the main anti-Thaksin party took over government buildings in August. Prime Minister Samak literally couldn't get to his desk.

Last week, the Thai high court tried to make the mob coup legal by ordering Samak to resign. It said he violated Thai law by accepting $2,400 to appear on recent episodes of "Tasting and Complaining." Samak didn't deny taking the money, but says it was reimbursement for food and cookware he used on the show. He was unapologetic about appearing.

"I did it because I liked doing it," he told the court.

Samak agreed to step down, but his party is defiant. It appointed Thaksin's brother-in-law interim party leader — which makes him acting prime minister until a permanent successor is chosen.

Thailand is at a precipice. Elections have repeatedly proven Thaksin, Samak and their party are the most popular leaders in the country. Yet the military, and a powerful urban minority party, are clearly determined to keep them out of the government.

Unless the two sides compromise, the funniest political soap opera on Earth could turn bloody any day now.

Got a question about the War on Terror™ or other foreign affairs? Send it to [email protected].

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