Thailand’s “double standards” and Thaksin’s parole are causing ire among political parties.

Critics are concerned that conflict could ensue if Thaksin remains ‘above the law’ amid mounting speculation of his return to politics
Last year’s poll appears to show Thailand is moving away from old-style populism associated with Thaksin and his family

The parole of ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is proving as divisive as his time in power, with critics on the left and right of Thai politics saying justice has not been served by the release of a man who has turned the wheels of the kingdom’s chaotic politics more than any other figure over the last 20 years.
The 74-year-old’s circuitous journey from a political star and champion of the poor to a fugitive nemesis of the elite – and now an elderly returnee to Thailand allowed to live at home – was captured in an Instagram post by his daughter on Sunday.
In it, Thaksin sits thoughtfully by a swimming pool at his Bangkok villa, wearing a neck brace with his right arm in a sling.

“Outside feeling the air and sunshine after 180 days … also not back home for 17 years,” said Peatongtarn Shinawatra.

“Dad is just sitting outside like this. He’s been sitting like this for a while #finallyhome.”

He was freed on parole on Sunday after spending six months in a police hospital. But Thaksin still splits the country.

“Thaksin serious illness? Parole? What kind of illness?” prominent conservative Senator Somchai Swangkarn posted on Facebook, with an artificial intelligence-generated animation of a giant inmate crushing the scales of justice, accompanied by the hashtag ‘Stomping on Thailand’s Justice System.’

A day after he was freed, Thaksin faced a new legal hurdle over an investigation into his comment made almost a decade ago that was seen as an insult to the nation’s royals, according to a Bloomberg News report.

Prayut Bejraguna, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General, told reporters on Monday that a decision on the matter is still being considered.

Thaksin is still hated by elements of the royalist establishment for his pro-poor policies which upended the elite-crafted political settlement. He remains unforgiven by many critics for re-routing old patronage networks to him and his family’s political parties using what they say was corruption and nepotism and is blamed for years of unrest and social division.

On Monday, another vocal conservative senator, Kittisak Rattanawaraha, said he was “very concerned of conflict and violence if he [Thaksin] continues to be above the law like this”, labelling his return without spending a day in jail a “miracle”.

The Corrections Department said Thaksin was eligible for parole due to his age, unspecified health conditions and having served over a third of his one-year term – a sentence slashed from eight years just after he returned to Thailand in August by a royal pardon from King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

As Thaksin settles into life back at home, tongues are already wagging over a possible future political role.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said he was open to receiving advice from Thaksin given his wealth of political knowledge.

“I believe there’s no one in this government who would not want advice from him, with all the experience he’s accumulated from living abroad over the years until he returned through our legitimate justice system – I repeat ‘legitimate’,” Srettha told reporters late Sunday.

Thaksin, a policeman from northern Chiang Mai who became a telecoms billionaire and then prime minister, remains Thailand’s only leader to have come to power from an election and to complete a full term, from 2001-2005.

A landslide victory that he won in the subsequent election provoked a coup in 2006 by a royalist military alarmed by his popularity before corruption charges were filed against him, which led to his self-exile two years later.

After the military and royalist conservatives struggled to win over a newly energised electorate, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra swept to victory in the 2011 election.

But she too was toppled by a coup in 2014, whose leader, ex-army chief Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, went on to run a deeply unpopular government until last year.

While Thaksin is credited by the rural and urban working classes for recognising their long-neglected situation at the bottom of Thailand’s economic and social hierarchy, their once unquestioned loyalty is now heavily diluted, experts say.

That is because of the apparent grand bargain which has allowed his return and a coalition of conservatives to share a government led by Pheu Thai, which has shed its reformist brand to take power.

The election in May 2023 was won by the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP), which usurped Pheu Thai as Thailand’s most popular party by garnering 14 million votes.

Those came mostly from the young as well as the once irrevocably pro-Shinawatra rural heartlands who were drawn to MFP’s vision of rewiring the economic and political power structures of one of Asia’s most unequal countries.

Yet MFP has been pushed into opposition, while Pheu Thai is allied with its former rivals in government.
MFP is now running a gauntlet to survive after a court found the party and its leadership guilty of attempting to “overthrow the constitutional monarchy” with a campaign call to reform the hardline royal defamation law. That law carries up to 15 years in jail per conviction.

“Anyone whose justice has not been served from the coup or political sabotage deserves justice, but we should not use double standards,” Chaitawat Tulathon, MFP’s leader, told reporters on Sunday of Thaksin’s release.

“Society can question whether what’s happening is fair or not – and whether only certain individuals deserve to have their justice served but not all.”

In a sign of the new dividing lines of Thai politics, last May’s election saw MFP sweep seats across the Chiang Mai heartland of the Shinawatra clan.

Law student Matoom said even her staunch pro-Thaksin mother was driven to shift her loyalties to MFP at the polls, as the nation appeared to be moving away from old-style populism – and the Shinawatra brand – towards bigger ideas of change.

“I don’t feel anything good or bad about Thaksin’s release,” Matoom told This Week in Asia, requesting to give one name only. “I just want to see equality for all, not just the few.”