Webinar on “Thailand’s Most Influential Mastermind, or Troubled Captive of His Own Complicated Fate”

Prof Ukrist Pathamanand (Institute of Asia Studies, Chulalongkorn University) and Dr Weera Wongsatjachok (Lecturer in Political Science and Public Administration, Naresuan University) discussed the phenomenon of influential former 2-time Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra following his return to Thailand after 17 years of self-exile.


The webinar examines the increasingly visible role of former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, in Thai politics after his return to Thailand on 22 August 2023 following 17 years in overseas exile.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap (moderator), Prof Ukrist Pathamanand and Dr Weera Wongsatjachok. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The Thai King commuted Thaksin’s eight-year imprisonment to one year, during which he spent 180 days in a police hospital undergoing treatment under mysterious circumstances. Upon completing this period, he was released to home detention on parole. Within three days, he resumed his political activities, hosting former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for a private lunch. Thaksin was also permitted to visit his hometown of Chiang Mai. A few days later, he also appeared at the Pheu Thai party congress with his youngest daughter, Paetongtarn (36), who is the incumbent party leader.

The ISEAS Thailand Studies Programme hosted a webinar under Chatham House rule, featuring Prof Ukrist Pathmanand from Chulalongkorn University and Dr Weera Wongsatjachok from Naresuan University. They provided valuable insights into the recent surge in the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin in Thai politics. The webinar attracted the attention of 64 attendees.

The webinar covers the following points:

  • Even after his return from exile, Thaksin still wields influence over the country. The current Pheu Thai-led coalition government is believed to be running with the model of “Thaksin thinks, Srettha acts.” Quite similar to his original idea when he set up the Thai Rak Thai party, “New Thinking and New Doing.”
  • Before the 2006 coup, Thaksin invited numerous business leaders from the entertainment, banking, and telecommunications sectors into the inner circle of the Thai Rak Thai Party, which was controlled by him and his family. Similar model can be seen in Pheu Thai Party.
  • After Thaksin was ousted from power by a military coup in 2006, he still managed to nominate three of his proxies for the premiership: Samak Sundaravej, who was subsequently disqualified by the Constitutional Court; Somchai Wongsawat, his brother-in-law, who was forced to resign by the military; and Yingluck Shinawatra, his youngest sister, who was also disqualified two weeks before the last coup in May 2014. Two parties established by Thaksin, Thai Rak Thai and the People’s Power Party, were also dissolved by the Constitutional Court.  Thaksin also managed to influence Thai politics using new communication channels such as Facebook and Twitter (X).
  • Despite his prominent presence on social media – on the Clubhouse platform, he called himself “Tony Woodsome” – , local news, and international media since his return, his political influence is not as strong as it once was. Thaksin’s party, Pheu Thai, only secured second place in the May 2023 general election, and the political deal between him and the conservatives to undermine the rising Move Forward Party has further diminished his popularity. The Srettha administration’s failure to deliver on promises, such as the digital wallet initiative and reducing energy prices, along with the low GDP growth, has also not helped Thaksin’s standing.
  • Thaksin himself further disrupted the Pheu Thai Party by hinting that his daughter could be his political successor and a future Prime Minister because she inherited his “political DNA”, a notion that may not be acceptable to many Pheu Thai members. This situation makes it seem as though there are three Prime Ministers in Thailand: Srettha, Thaksin, and his daughter, further undermining Srettha administration’s power.
  • From 2001 to 2023, Thaksin’s parties consistently won the most seats in parliament. except for the May  2023 election. If Pheu Thai secures a majority of seats in the election in 2023, Thaksin will not be able to return to Thailand.

Understanding Pheu Thai and Thaksin Through Five Lenses

  1. The Pheu Thai Party and Thai Rak Thai Party share the same institutional routines, positions, and management style. Srettha’s government adopted Thaksin’s populist economic policies, known as Thaksinomics, including mega projects, subsidies, and financial handouts like the digital wallet scheme. Srettha’s “One Family One Softpower” policy closely mirrors Thaksin’s “One Tambon One Product” policy. Additionally, the Srettha administration has adopted similar welfare policies to those of Thaksin.
  2. Despite claims that Pheu Thai has become a conservative party, it remains a reformist party. Pheu Thai still retains prominent members of democratic activists from the October 1973 Student Movement. In addition to the business community, local political families also play prominent roles in the Pheu Thai Party. These three groups represent the pillars of the Pheu Thai Party.
  3. Thaksin’s wife is also considered the real power behind Pheu Thai. Her family’s connections to the royal family and the traditional elites demonstrate that the Thaksin family has always been royalists. However, with the rise of a new youth political movement that embraces radical political ideas, Thaksin has tried to rebrand himself as a progressive figure to capture this audience.
  4. In the Chiang Mai local election, Thaksin and his sister Yingluck openly supported their preferred candidate, Pichai, swaying voters at the last minute. Nationally, Thaksin put forward his daughter as the next Prime Minister, showing that the Pheu Thai Party remains under the control of the Shinawatra family.
  5. Thaksin’s push to make his daughter the next Prime Minister could potentially upset other factions within the Pheu Thai Party. It appears that Thaksin is determined to prioritize this political dynastic transition, possibly as his final mission.

The audience raised questions about the potential return of Yingluck, whether Thaksin’s modus operandi remains the same as 17 years ago; the future of the Move Forward Party; who holds real power, the durability of the political alliance; and whether Thaksin might become a new privy councilor.