Prime minister of Thailand
Born July 26, 1949, in Chiang Mai, Thailand; son of Boonlert (a silk businessman); married Potjaman; children: Parthongtae (son), Praethongtarn (daughter), Pintongta (daughter). Religion: Buddhism. Education: Graduated from the Police Cadet Academy in Thailand, 1973; Eastern Kentucky University, M.A. in criminal justice, 1975; Sam Houston State University, Ph.D. in criminal justice, 1978.
Addresses: Office—Government House, Thanon Pissanulok, Dusit, Bangkok 10300, Thailand. Website—http://www.thaigov.go.th.
Joined the Royal Thai Police Department, 1973; promoted to lieutenant colonel, 1987; founder and chairman of Shinawatra Computer and Communications Group, 1987-94; minister of foreign affairs, 1994-95; deputy prime minister, 1997; founded Thai Rak Thai party, 1998; member of parliament, 1998-2001; prime minister of Thailand, 2001—.
Awards: ASEAN Businessman of the Year, 1992; 1993 Outstanding Telecom Man of the Year Award, 1994; Leading Asian Businessman, Singapore Business Times, 1994; Outstanding Criminal Justice Alumnus Award and Distinguished Alumni Award, Sam Houston State University, 1996; Outstanding Politician Award, Mass Media Photographer Association of Thailand, 1997.
First a policeman, then a billionaire telecommunications executive, now prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra (pronounced Chin-a-what) is a strong leader in a country not known for strong leaders. He has delivered on his promises to help Thailand's rural poor—at the risk of letting them go into more debt—and his policies and decisive style have won over most Thais—though some have complained that he has an autocratic streak and that his law-and-order campaigns have come at the expense of human rights. His strong leadership served him well after a devastating tsunami hit Thailand at the end of 2004, when he toured the damaged coastal lands and promised swift relief. Those pledges helped him win an unprecedented second term.
Thaksin was born in the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. He worked in the family business—a silk business that had grown into a bus line and movie theaters—with his father, Boonlert. Thaksin studied to become a police officer, graduated at the top of his police cadet class, and won a government scholarship to study abroad. He got a master's degree and doctorate in criminal justice at universities in Kentucky and Texas. When he returned to Thailand, he advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the police force. He began supplying the police department with computer software in 1982.
In 1987, he left the police force to market a movie, Bann Sai Thong, and started his telecommunications company, the Shinawatra Company, which sold computer software and soon expanded into pager services, cable television, satellites, data communications networks, and mobile phone services. The company went public on the Bangkok Stock Exchange in 1990, the same year he made a successful bid for a 20-year deal with the Telephone Organization of Thailand. Eventually, his company, now named Shin Corporation, made him one of Thailand's richest men.
Thaksin left the company in 1994 to enter politics, becoming minister of foreign affairs as part of the Palang Dharma Party. His goal, he proclaimed, was to clean up politics in his country. He founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) party in 1998, and it quickly came to dominate Thai elections.
Thaksin was elected prime minister in 2001 on promises to offer loans to help the poor and provide health care for only 30 bhat (less than $1). His politics were proudly nationalistic, and in his northern Thai accent, he often criticized the "Bangkok elite." Yet businesspeople liked his leadership style, often considered similar to a company chief executive officer's, and his economic policies. "Thaksin is an effortless campaigner," wrote Time Asia's Karl Taro Greenfeld in a mostly skeptical profile, "his languorous walk, the gradual coming together of his palms in a Buddhist greeting, the soft grip of his handshake, all his movements coalesce to communicate equilibrium, an almost soothing presence."
Early in his first term, Thaksin faced an investigation by Thailand's Corruption Commission; he was charged with failing to reveal all his wealth while he was a deputy prime minister in 1997 and with giving Shin Corp. shares to his drivers and maids when he had to give up his stock. However, the Constitutional Court acquitted him of corruption charges in an 8-7 vote. To follow Thai law aimed at preventing conflicts of interest, he gave stock in most of his companies to his son and teenage daughters. Today, his family controls about 39 percent of Shin, and the market considers the company's fortunes as still linked to Thaksin's, since Shin's stock rises and falls along with Thaksin's approval ratings, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2005. Forbes magazine estimates that the prime minister's family has accumulated about $1.9 billion in wealth.
When Thaksin took office, Thailand was recovering from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and needed to adjust to the changing global economy. The country had relied on exports to countries such as the United States to keep its economy going, but it was growing difficult for Thailand to compete with China. So Thaksin's focus on the countryside and the poor had the benefit of building a more self-sufficient economy, less dependent on the export market.
Thaksin quickly delivered on his promise of cheap health care. He also helped the rural poor with a $2 billion Village Fund that gave $25,000 each to Thailand's 80,000 small towns to fund low-cost loans to villagers. His economic policies, known as Thaksinomics, have helped the economy boom: Thailand's gross domestic product jumped by 22 percent in the first four years he was in office, and incomes in the countryside have increased even faster. Critics have warned that Thais were becoming debt-ridden and dependent on government handouts, but when Thaksin ran for another term in early 2005, the economy was continuing to grow and the middle class, originally skeptical of him, largely supported him. "Thaksin's policies have turned him into something of a popular hero, hailed by his fans as the decisive, no-nonsense leader who has lifted Thailand from the doldrums of the Asian financial crisis, restored Thai pride, and lavished cash on the forgotten backcountry," Michael Schuman of Time Asia summed up.
Thai liberals have often warned that Thaksin has an authoritarian streak. More than 2,500 people died during a Thaksin-led crackdown on drugs in 2003, and human-rights groups complained that suspects' due-process rights had been violated and that people innocent of crimes may have died. The government's reaction to violence by Islamic separatists in southern Thailand has attracted similar criticism. In 2004, the militants stepped up their attacks, and police were accused of responding brutally. In October of 2004, about 80 suspected militants held prisoner by the government died, most of them suffocated inside trucks. Thaksin apologized for the deaths, saying authorities had not handled the prisoners correctly.
In December of 2004, Thaksin offered an unusual peace gesture: he had the Thai air force drop millions of paper cranes on the southern provinces on the king of Thailand's birthday. The cranes were folded, origami-style, by troops, students, volunteers, and even Thaksin and his cabinet. Paper cranes, in Japanese tradition, are supposed to bring people peace and hope. However, Thaksin proposed tougher security laws at the same time, such as the ability to tap phones without warrants and hold suspects without a charge for a week. The cranes, the New York Times quoted him as saying, would "have a psychological effect on moderate people but it will not work with people who are leading the vicious acts."
Late that month, a giant tsunami struck the coasts of Thailand and several other Asian nations. It was the region's biggest natural disaster in a century. Thailand responded more quickly than other Asian nations, moving food and first-aid teams into coastal areas right away. Several factors helped Thailand respond, including better medical and transportation networks than other countries and less widespread damage, but observers credited Thaksin's strong leadership as another factor. Thaksin visited the resort areas hit by the tsunami several times in the days after the disaster, promising immediate relief for local residents and foreign tourists alike and the construction of an early-warning system for future tsunamis.
Political observers had already expected Thaksin's party to win the 2005 elections, but his strong response to the tsunami undoubtedly helped his popularity. It also helped him put a less impressive response to a natural disaster behind him; he had to admit in January of 2004 that his government, fearing panic, had failed to alert people to a bird flu outbreak.
So it was no surprise that Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party won about 375 of the 500 seats in the Thai parliament in February of 2005. That made Thaksin the first prime minister to lead an elected government through a full four-year term (Thailand has a history of shaky coalitions and the occasional overthrow of democratically elected leaders by coups). It was also the first Thai election won outright by one party, without the need for a coalition partner. With his broad mandate, Thaksin was expected to pursue education reform and to expand his credit program for rural areas into a program to create banks in his second term.
Economist, February 12, 2005, p. 40.
New York Times, December 3, 2004, p. A11; February 7, 2005, p. A8.
Time Asia, August 4, 2001; October 20, 2003; January 31, 2005.
Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2004, p. A1; December 30, 2004, p. A7; January 6, 2005, p. A10; January 19, 2005, p. C18.
"Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra (23rd Prime Minister)," Royal Thai Embassy, Washington, D.C., http://www.thaiembdc.org/bio/pms/thaksin.html (May 21, 2005).
"Profile: Thaksin Shinawatra," BBC News, http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1108114.stm (May 21, 2005).
"Royals & Rulers," Forbes,http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/2005/03/07/cz_bill05_royalsslide_4.html (May 21, 2005).
"Thaksin Shinawatra—a biography," Bangkok Post,http://www.bangkokpost.net/election2001/thaksinprofile.html (May 21, 2005).