11 July 2024

The last time Thaksin Shinawatra was in Thailand, Pita Limjaroenrat was still a high-flying student cementing international recognition and was never heard of by his own political fans of today as the majority of them were playing and studying in school; only privileged few owned flat-screen TVs which were even “thick” by today’s standard; smartphones belonged exclusively to the rich and had real buttons, not “touch” capability; Angelina Jolie was Hollywood’s most bankable actress; Twitter, YouTube and Facebook had just been conceived; and Manchester City were nothing but the “noisy neighbours” of football superpower Manchester United.

King Rama IX reigned over Thailand at the time. In England, Queen Elizabeth ruled. George W. Bush was the American president grappling with the subprime mortgage crisis. Nobody in the Philippines would have thought then that they would live to see the son of Ferdinand Marcos becoming their president.

It’s been a long time. But is Thaksin, who is widely tipped to re-enter Thailand next month, the same Thaksin who departed it in 2008? Is Thailand that is about to take him back the same Thailand that saw him leave 15 years ago?

Some may say a lot of things have changed. They believe that the emergence of Move Forward is a whole new ball game leading to a softened conservative perception of Thaksin, who must also have also diluted his own extremism while getting older.

Others may say differences between then and now are not fundamental and the ultimate context remains the same. They say the ideological war is admittedly having new tools, new players, greater aggression, more numerous complications and more subtle strategies, but those fighting it share the same goals as their counterparts of 15 years ago.

Differences between the Thaksin’s and today’s eras are real. Yet many believe they are based on the very same thing, which is the disagreement over the “legitimacy” of the “majority”. Thaksin was either persecuted because of his immense popularity, or hiding behind the mammoth populace that adored him. There were people who actually thought that if Thaksin was truly corrupt, but was efficient as prime minister and received the backing of more than half of Thais, then so be it. Others expected the country’s leader to be the standard-bearer morally and ethically.

These schools of thought will clash again when he is back. They have clashed over Pita, though, but Move Forward’s young age takes corruption out of the equation. The focus of the Pita showdown is over the “sacredness” of the majority voice all the same.

Pita’s personal character, his thinking, pro-west foreign policies and legislative ideas or attitudes that may offend the minority are accepted by his supporters because he has won over the “majority”, but the sizeable minority is saying that democratic leadership must be prudently and considerately patriotic, not one with a divisive agenda.

Thaksin gave birth to Pita. The overthrow of the former contributed to the red-shirt uprising in 2010 and installed Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister in 2011, culminating in her removal from office in 2014 by Prayut Chan-o-cha’s coup, after which the Future Forward Party run by Pita’s predecessor Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was founded. After Thanathorn was banned from politics and Future Forward was dissolved, it reincarnated as Move Forward which named Pita as its leader.

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Should he come back, Thaksin will see with his own eyes how the national divide that sent him to a long exile has transformed itself. Thanathorn once declared that “I’m not Thaksin”, suggesting that vested business interests could compromise an ideological struggle. The young politician apologised for saying so afterwards, but what he implied would not go away easily, especially as graft cases and jail rulings await the man in Dubai.

One big irony is that if Pita became new prime minister, he would have to deal with how to treat Thaksin, and Thaksin would give Pita a big headache. They are in the same political family tree but on different branches, so to speak.

That irony is what 15 years can do. So, what about a century? Whether their paths will cross devastatingly or not, Thaksin and Pita are mere proxies in a showdown between two political forces that have been taking turns gaining the upper hand since 1932. The crux of the battle is the question whether Thailand can have a genuine democracy. While political rhetoric divides Thailand into a “pro-democracy” camp and advocates of “dictatorship”, truth is that for over 90 years, Thais have been unable to agree among themselves on “How?”, “Where?”, and “When?” constructive and just self-governing can occur.

Thaksin and Pita are in the “Right here, right now” camp who want Thais to learn as they go. The opposite side wants to go slow with substantial caution and guidance, so that the much-wanted democracy can truly benefit the people. Both camps have good reasons. The former said the step-by-step approach only promoted addiction to power, while the latter said being rush would only lead to disasters. Each has been accusing the other of using apparently-rationale argument to push for dishonest agendas.

Cue international twists and turns and the struggle between the forces” is more confusing. There were times when anti-establishment activists fought against capitalism and looked up to Chinese communism. Now, Thai activists are all pro-West and frown upon Beijing and Moscow.

The changeability of ideological activism has given rise to the last and weirdest school of thought regarding Thaksin’s planned return. This theory takes everything into account including what is believed to be Thaksin’s unyielding desire to play a hero at any cost. In this scenario, the Thaksin camp will turn against Pita’s Move Forward if it has to. By that, Pheu Thai may no longer be Move Forward’s frenemy, but a full-scale rival.

When Thailand was ending its absolute monarchy, the British authorities in India were confiningMahatma Gandhi (just one example of how human right abuses were a hallmark of colonialism during those days before many of the abusers stopped being bad and turned into moral preachers), the Beatles was roughly thirty years away, colour television was unknown to the whole world and Everton beat Manchester City 3-0 in an FA Cup final. Thaksin would be born 17 years later.

If he returns to Thailand next month as announced by his daughter, a new political chapter will begin. Whether it will mock or repeat history is anyone’s guess.

By Tulsathit Taptim