Former Thai PM Thaksin At Center Of Intrigues And Political Rumors: As Mastermind Or Just Victim Of Fate? – Analysis


By Termsak Chalermpalanupap

Former two-time prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra[1] has undoubtedly captured a great deal of media and public attention in Thailand lately. In a recent survey, the 75-year-old IT media tycoon turned politician was voted the most influential person in Thai politics, eclipsing Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who came a distant second.[2]

Thaksin’s youngest daughter, Paetongtarn (36), is now leader of Pheu Thai (PT), the main government party. Thaksin has been grooming her to be prime minister, and she is in line to be the fourth in the Shinawatra family to head a Thai government.[3]

But how soon Paetongtarn, a mother of two with little political experience, will rise to the premiership depends, according to political rumours, on how promptly Thaksin delivers on his “secret deals” with the powers-that-be in the restless conservative establishment.[4]

Ever since he returned from 17 years of exile overseas on 22 August 2023, Thaksin has been at the centre of political intrigues and rumours. What is unclear is whether he is actually the mastermind in the political arena, or just a struggling captive of his own schemes and controversial past.

On his first return, Thaksin looked normal, cheerful and healthy. He paid careful respect to the portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn – obviously set up by his family for media consumption. Then he moved swiftly to greet his supporters and several PT bigwigs, including Phumtham Wechayachai, a deputy PT leader and one of the key negotiators for the formation of a new government. Thaksin was then whisked to a Bangkok prison, presumably to start serving eight years of a jail term stemming from past three convictions for corruption and conflict of interest.

That same afternoon, PT’s premiership candidate, Srettha, won approval in parliament to be the 30th prime minister of Thailand.[5] Those who voted for the 61-year-old real estate tycoon included 152 senators who were allies of then Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha. Those senators who supported Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, a premiership candidate of Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), mostly abstained.

The PT has switched sides to team up with the PPRP, Bhumjaithai, and United Thai Nation (three major parties from the previous Prayut Administration), after ditching the Move Forward Party (MFP), which came first in the May 2023 general election. Srettha getting the premiership is widely believed to be part of “secret deals” done between Thaksin and whoever represented the conservative establishment, most probably, in this case, General Prayut.[6] Thaksin and General Prayut used to be sworn enemies, but both have found common interest in stopping the MFP from gaining government power.

Against all poll surveys and pundit predictions, the MFP had scored a huge surprise victory in the general election. It beat the PT – the hottest frontrunner – and came first with 151 House seats and nearly 14.44 million votes (in the second ballot for party-list House seats). The PT finished second with only 141 House seats and about 10.795 million votes. The MFP alone won more House seats and popularity votes than the PPRP, Bhumjaithai, and United Thai Nation combined.[7]

The spectacular victory of the MFP happened despite Thaksin’s active participation behind the scenes from his exile base in Dubai to drum up support for the PT. He even dispatched Paetongtarn to attract young voters. In March 2022, Paetongtarn assumed a high-profile but informal role as the “Head of Pheu Thai Family”. But it was too little and too late. Her political debut could not stop the MFP from overtaking the PT in the election.


Thaksin’s return from exile is believed to be part of the “secret deals” widely discussed by news commentators and pundits. Their common assumption is that Thaksin, with the support of the PT, agreed to counteract the rise of the reformist MFP, protect the vested interests of the conservative establishment in general, and defend the monarchy in particular.

But what will Thaksin receive in return for his invaluable service?

For starters, Thaksin who had for more than a decade been talking about a homecoming,[8] would finally be allowed to return to Thailand safely, which he did on 22 August 2023. On the day of his return, PT’s premiership candidate, Srettha, won the top government post in parliament, with strong support of senators from General Prayut’s camp. This came in exchange for the PT’s break-up of their alliance with the MFP . The PT+MFP coalition had in July 2023 failed to win the premiership for MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat – chiefly because of a lack of active support from senators.

Next, Thaksin would be given special consideration for his health issues while in fictitious “detention”. Before midnight on his first day in a Bangkok prison, Thaksin complained of severe chest pain and shortness of breath. He was rushed to the Police Hospital, arriving at 00:20 a.m. on 23 August, and sent to a premium suite on the 14th floor of the hospital. The whole process seemed well-planned and promptly executed.

According to the Corrections Department, Thaksin has had a long history of sickness, including long COVID and damage in his lungs, myocardial ischemia (reduced oxygen and blood flows in heart arteries), high blood pressure, and a weakened spine.[9] Thaksin had to be sent to the Police Hospital – instead of the prison hospital which would have been the case under normal circumstances – because he was suffering from some life-threatening heart conditions, and the prison hospital was not adequately equipped to handle such an emergency.[10]

Thaksin soon received the news that he had been waiting for. On 1 September, in response to Thaksin’s request for royal clemency, the Royal Gazette published the King’s decision to commute Thaksin’s jail term, reducing it from eight years to one.[11] However, in the published announcement, Thaksin was called a “male convict” (นักโทษเด็ดขาดชาย) who “admits guilt of his offence” (ยอมรับผิดในการกระทำ), and “repents for his wrongdoings” (มีความสำนึกในความผิด).[12]

Counter-signing the royal command was General Prayut, in his capacity as the caretaker prime minister. On 29 November, General Prayut was appointed a member of the Privy Council. The appointment, in effect, has removed the 70-year-old army strongman from national politics.

Thaksin might have hoped for a full pardon, so that he could return home as soon as his health permitted. Another setback is that his criminal record cannot be erased.[13] This means he is no longer eligible to hold public offices, certainly not a third premiership term.

Thaksin reportedly underwent several undisclosed treatments, including a surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right shoulder. He was seen in public only once, on 23 October, when he was wheeled out of his room to undergo CT and MRI scans.[14]

On 18 February, Thaksin was released under parole, having served the first 180 days of his one-year jail term under “detention” in the hospital. On his ride home, he was seen wearing a neck brace, and a protective elbow sling on his right arm.

However, unlike others released under parole, the Corrections Department said Thaksin did not need to wear any ankle electronic monitor device due to his old age and health conditions.

On 19 February, he was seen in a wheelchair at the Office of the Attorney-General, where he acknowledged a criminal case against him. He has been charged with violating Section 112, the so-called lese-majeste law, because of a media interview in Seoul in May 2015. He was accused of insulting the previous monarch, King Bhumibol, by implying that the king, who passed away in October 2016, had supported the Army’s coup against Thaksin a decade ago.

Thaksin was also charged with violating the Computer Law of 2017 for causing the creation and circulation of fake news harmful to national security. This particular violation carries a maximum jail term of five years; the violation of the lese-majeste law carries a jail term ranging from three to 15 years. Thaksin pledged not guilty to both charges. He was released on bail of 500,000 baht.

This is not the first time Thaksin has faced the charge of violating the lese-majeste law. Previously. all such similar charges against him had either been dropped by public prosecutors due to lack of evidence, or he was ruled not guilty in court.

The Chief Attorney-General has scheduled 10 April for announcement of his decision on how to proceed in this case against Thaksin. In late 2015, a different Chief Attorney-General put on record his opinion that the case was prosecutable, pending the arrest of Thaksin. Should the Chief Attorney-General decide to prosecute Thaksin, it will still take quite some time, perhaps years, before a final verdict can be reached. Meanwhile, Thaksin will be handicapped by uncertainties, not knowing how and when the lese-majeste case against him will end.

On 20 February, Thaksin received his first VVIP guest at home – former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. After a private lunch, Hun Sen returned to Phnom Penh without calling on Prime Minister Srettha.[15] Three days later, it was Srettha’s turn to visit Thaksin. Thaksin has been permitted to travel to his hometown of Chiang Mai, from 14-16 March, for an early Sheng Meng, to pay respect to his deceased parents and ancestors (Hakka Chinese in Moichu, Canton).


For a short while, the Constitutional Court’s ruling on 24 January to acquit Pita for holding iTV shares[16] raised new hope in the MFP. With his return as an MP, Pita could help the MFP score more political points as the chief opposition party in the House of Representatives. The MFP, after all, can be a potent counterbalance to the PT.

The short-lived optimism was soon brutally dashed by another Constitutional Court’s ruling just one week later. The Constitutional Court, in a unanimous decision by all its nine judges, ruled that the MFP had abused freedom and liberty in order to overthrow the democratic system of government of the constitutional monarchy; this is prohibited under Section 49 of the Constitution. The Constitutional Court ordered the MFP to stop all activities relating to the call to abolish Section 112 of the Criminal Code (the lese-majeste law).[17]

The Constitutional Court cited as unconstitutional two major incidents: the MFP’s use of Section 112 as a campaign issue in the general election of May 2023; and the MFP’s proposed bill submitted on 25 March 2021 by Pita and 43 MPs of the MFP to amend Section 112.[18]

However, the Constitutional Court’s ruling did state that any change to the lese-majeste law can only be done through proper legislative means.[19] This has raised a sticky legal question whether the Constitution Court could find fault with the 44 MPs of the MFP who submitted the controversial bill in 2021, since they were exercising their legitimate legislators’ rights.

After the ruling, the MFP removed from its website all references to its policy on Section 112. Yet, the MFP still questions whether the Constitutional Court has the authority to prevent MPs from doing their job in the House. On 6 March, the MFP proposed to the House Speaker the formation of an ad hoc House committee to study this issue.[20]

The MFP now faces a grim prospect of imminent dissolution as a follow-up punishment for the serious wrongdoings. The offences cited in the ruling of the Constitutional Court constituted a violation of Section 92 (Paragraph 1) of the 2017 Political Party Act. On 11 March, the Election Commissioners reached a unanimous decision to request the Constitutional Court to dissolve the MFP.[21]

The Constitutional Court, when it is its turn to act, may ask the MFP to testify to defend itself. In the case of Future Forward Party, the MFP’s predecessor, the Constitutional Court took less than two months to announce its final decision on 21 February 2020 to that party, and to ban its executive committee members, including founder and party leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, from national politics for ten years.

Facing a similar ban are Pita and other members of the MFP’s executive committee from 2020 to September 2023. Pita and four others are party-list MPs.[22] They can resign before the dissolution of their party and thus enable the MFP to keep those five House seats by filling them with others on the party’s list. After dissolution of a party, its MPs (who are not on the affected executive committee) will have 60 days to join another party and keep their House membership.[23]

Also facing a ban are those 44 MPs who sponsored the bill to propose amendments to the lese-majeste law in 2021. Apart from Pita, the others in this group included several well-known MFP rising stars, notably: Ms Sirikanya Tansakul, Viroj Lakhana-adisorn, Rangsiman Rome, Natthawudh Buapathum, Ms Benja Saengchan, and Pakornvudh Udompipatsakul.[24]

In addition, Pita was saddled with a new criminal conviction on 5 February for organising an unlawful “flash mob” within 150 metres of a royal residence (namely Princess Sirindhorn’s) near the MBK Mall. He is appealing the conviction, which includes 4 months of suspended jail term.[25] A criminal conviction, once finalised in the Supreme Court, disqualifies the convicted from holding public offices – just like in the case of Thaksin.

Once Pita and his colleagues are knocked out from active national politics, who shall then emerge to form the third generation of reformists to continue working for structural changes in Thailand? Some party insiders hold hope of seeing some among the MFP’s current economic advisors to step forward.[26] Ms Sirikanya, leader of the group, should be able to do so, at least temporarily.[27]


Obviously, most in the embattled MFP would not give in to despair. They believe the MFP, standing on the shoulder of its dissolved predecessor Future Forward Party, has woken up Thailand with its convincing call for reforms. A significant number of Thai voters have embraced the MFP’s reformist ideas and can-do mentality. More than 14 million of them voted for MFP candidates in the last election, even without knowing many of them personally. Their common goal now is to win more than 250 House seats in the next general election and form a single party government in order to change Thailand for the better.

However, in the next electoral battle, it will be much more difficult for any single party to score a majority victory. Traditional conservative parties are trying to rebrand themselves as “neo-conservative”, “modern conservative” or “liberal democratic”. They still enjoy implicit support from their allies in the bureaucracy, the military, and even the judiciary.

At the same time, the skilful PT will be able to make good use of its government power to gain popular support. It can also count on Thaksin’s political ingenuity and connections. Once again, the PT + Thaksin and the conservative establishment will still share one common interest in the unfinished crucial mission to stop the reformist movement.

Rumours are spreading, once again, that a “new secret deal” is being developed. Thaksin certainly hopes to be absolved of all remaining criminal charges in the pending lese-majeste case. More importantly, he also wants Yingluck to be able to return from exile without having to face any charges.

The former first Thai female premier mysteriously fled the country through the Thai-Cambodian border in August 2017. Her bail money of 30 million baht has been confiscated. One month after her disappearance, she was convicted for dereliction of duty (for failing to stop the massive corruption in the paddy pledging scheme of her government). And she was sentenced to five years in jail.

Spending time in a hospital, a la Thaksin, after returning from exile and awaiting a royal clemency will be more difficult to arrange for Yingluck. The 56-year-old single mother of one teenage son looks healthy and in high spirits in her seventh year of exile. One practical alternative for Yingluck is “home detention” in lieu of actual imprisonment.[28] All in all, Thaksin will be asking for quite a lot of favours for himself and Yingluck. But what can he give in return?


Several past rumours have turned out to be true: It had turned out that Thaksin has not needed to spend time in prison; Srettha – who has no leadership role in the PT – did become the 30th prime minister of Thailand; Paetongtarn did walk in unopposed to lead the PT; and Move Forward Party is facing dissolution, etc.

More exciting developments are unfolding in Thailand. And soon it will be clearer whether Thaksin is indeed the mastermind, or just a victim of his own complicated fate.

  • About the author: Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
  • Source: This article was published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), an autonomous organization established by an Act of Parliament in 1968, was renamed ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in August 2015. Its aims are: To be a leading research centre and think tank dedicated to the study of socio-political, security, and economic trends and developments in Southeast Asia and its wider geostrategic and economic environment. To stimulate research and debate within scholarly circles, enhance public awareness of the region, and facilitate the search for viable solutions to the varied problems confronting the region. To serve as a centre for international, regional and local scholars and other researchers to do research on the region and publish and publicize their findings. To achieve these aims, the Institute conducts a range of research programmes; holds conferences, workshops, lectures and seminars; publishes briefs, research journals and books; and generally provides a range of research support facilities, including a large library collection.

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