BANGKOK – Corruption allegations against former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are at the center of an anti-government campaign by protesters who say that while graft is endemic his billionaire family overstepped the mark.
Thailand endures a complex relationship with corruption characterized by weak governance, opaque webs of political patronage and an expectation of under-the-table payments to get things done.
Demonstrators trying to rid the country of Thaksin’s influence by ousting the government led by his sister, Yingluck, believe he has broken the kingdom’s tacit contract with graft, says political commentator Voranai Vanijaka of the Bangkok Post.
“Thai people are quite pragmatic . . . we understand that everybody takes a little bite of the apple,” he said.
“The problem with Thaksin is that he put a sign on the whole apple tree saying ‘property of the Shinawatra family’ . . . that’s dangerous to do here.”
The demonstrators allege Yingluck is being controlled by her brother, a tycoon-turned-politician who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives overseas to avoid a jail term for abuse of power that he says was politically motivated.
Protesters point to accusations of wrongdoing over the former leader’s business empire, as well as complaints about populist policies and alleged “vote buying” that they say explain the victories of Thaksin and his allies at every election since the start of this century.
“Thaksin has taken too much and his big mistake is that he has made it open for everyone to see,” said rally supporter Rocky, 24, on the fringes of a march through an upmarket Bangkok neighborhood last week.
Protest leaders have harnessed that indignation to package their fight as an anti-corruption crusade, while urging the military and independent institutions to aid them in their attempt to block Feb. 2 elections that Yingluck is again expected to win.
Thaksin is adored in the northern heartlands and among the urban working class, but is loathed by many among the Bangkok middle class, southerners and the royalist establishment.
Following his removal from power, the former telecoms baron was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail over a land deal involving his wife.
Then, in 2010, a Thai court confiscated around $1.4 billion — or about half of his fortune — over tax evasion linked to the sale of his telecoms company during his tenure as prime minister.
Thaksin says he is innocent of wrongdoing and the victim of maneuvering by his political foes.
The protest leaders “use corruption claims to attract the crowd,” his legal adviser, Noppadon Pattama, said, accusing political opponents of trumping up graft claims.
“But to accuse the Shinawatra family of monopolizing corruption is wholly unfounded,” he added.
Criticism against the former premier has also been directed at so-called Thaksinomics — big-spending populist policies including free health care, cheap loans and a controversial rice farmer subsidy.
The rice scheme, introduced by Yingluck’s government, has drawn particular ire, with claims it engendered widespread corruption and drained Thai coffers of billions of dollars just to shore up the Shinawatras’ rural voter base.
Few politicians remain untarnished in the hurly-burly of Thai politics, where the most outspoken politician to campaign against corruption, Chuvit Kamolvisit, is a former massage parlor king who has openly admitted to paying bribes in the past.
Even firebrand anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban — who is marshaling street rallies aimed at “shutting down” Bangkok that are now stretching into their second week — has faced allegations of corruption in the past.
As a minister for the then-ruling Democrat Party in the mid-’90s, Suthep was heavily criticized over the use of a land law that resulted in rich people claiming property meant for the poor. The government dissolved parliament in the fallout from the scandal.
However, some see Suthep’s reinvention as an anti-graft hero as part of a wider public rejection of corruption.
“Suthep is not perfect . . . but he’s changed now he is a leader and he is going to retire anyway after this movement,” said 78-year-old protester Amonrat Kridakon. “Thaksin is the problem.”