Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, dominated politics, creating a strong populist sentiment throughout Thailand. Prior to Shinawatra, Thailand was a constitutional monarchy, having political stability, despite the military staging constant coups, sometimes disrupting governmental processes. In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, a CEO businessman-turned-politician, ran under the populist guise, winning favor amongst the grassroots voters. He looked to improve life for those in rural areas.
After his election in 2001, Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon, successfully aided the country in cleanup after Asia’s financial and economic crisis of 1998. He implemented populist policies, such as his One Tambon (village), One Product (OTOP), as well as empowering several small-scale businesses and generating widespread interest from export markets to handmade products. In 2002, the Thai government recorded a 5.3 percent growth rate and the growth rate was forecast to grow by six percent in 2003. Some agencies even predicted an 8 percent growth rate for 2004, which would then match its neighbor, China’s, growth. In 2004, Shinawatra exceeded his goal of 8 percent expansion and Thailand’s reached 9 percent. Shinawatra’s populist policies allowed him to achieve his ambitious goal. According to the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), Thailand’s construction sector grew about 7 percent in the second quarter of 2004, adding “a lot of impetus to the economy.”
Although his social reforms aided the economy in recovery from Asia’s financial crisis, Shinawatra had a different approach to political reform. He attempted to win the absolute majority of votes, and form a single party government, rather than trying to win a plethora of votes. After winning his election in 2001, mainly fueled by grassroots voters in the north/northeast region of Thailand, Shinawatra entered the government with the hope of monopolizing the political scene, raising the stakes of the electoral campaign. Thaksin was able to build country roads, boost education and provide healthcare for the poor. However, Shinawatra did not heed the interest of the middle/upper-class, who would eventually resent him for it. They believed he favored his own personal business endeavors over the country’s.
By ignoring a vast majority of Thais, the middle/upper-class, Thaksin Shinawatra faced opposition. However, holding great disdain for any criticism regarding the government or his autocratic rule, Shinawatra limited freedom of expression, launched inhumane campaigns of extrajudicial executions under the guise of the war on drugs, and implemented several health policies, such as the responses to the bird-flu outbreak or the spread of AIDS, without having monitored the programs. His power spread into media outlets as well, for he owned the vast majority of many Thai media sources. After his election in 2001, Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party stifled the news sources, enforcing an image of a no-nosense, can-do government firmly in charge of a peaceful country. The media sources portrayed Thailand as picture-perfect, even though substantial, serious reports were concealed from the public. According to the Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcasters Association, when Thaksin Shinawatra came into power, more than twenty percent of news personnel like editors were fired, transferred, or had their work tampered with in order to comply with the government’s wishes. At the Bangkok Post, one of Thailand’s largest English-language newspapers, the editor, Veera Prateepchaikul was evicted from his position for not censoring the paper’s criticisms on Shinawatra’s mishandling of the bird-flu outbreak. The news editor of Siamrath Weekly was forced to resign after publicizing critical views of the government and Shinawatra’s control. The manipulation of the media outlets led to the undermining of the fight against drugs and HIV/AIDS as well. Within three months, about 2,500 people were killed as a result of leaving police stations; however, the government claimed the deaths to be the result of gang rivalry not government corruption. In addition, in a sixty-page report conducted by the Human Rights Watch, drug dealers in Thailand were forced into hiding instead of being offered government aid to join prevention methods. Ultimately, Thaksin Shinawatra rid Thailand of basic human rights.
After five years as Thailand’s prime minister, enforcing a populist/authoritarian regime, Thaksin Shinawatrra was ousted from office in 2006 in response to a military coup. He remains as one of Thailand’s most controversial figures; however; his policies have left a lasting impression on Thai government.