23rd Prime Minister of Thailand
b. July 26, 1949. Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wife: Potjaman (Damapong), with whom he has a son and two daughters.
A former lieutenant colonel in the Royal Thai Police Department and telecommunications entrepreneur, Thaksin Shinawatra became Prime Minister of Thailand in February of 2001. At the time he entered office, he was one of the wealthiest men in Thailand, and had a somewhat checkered political career dating back to 1994.
Thaksin was born into a wealthy family in Chiang Mai, which had been successful in the silk business for over fifty years. The family had eventually expanded into running movie theatres and a bus line. Thaksin worked in the family business for several years, and managed one of the family's movie theatres at the age of 16.
Thaksin eventually decided that he would go to work for the Royal Thai Police Force. However, he was clearly interested in being more than a beat cop or an investigator. In 1973, he graduated at the top of his Police Cadet class, and left for the United States to complete his education. He received a Master's Degree from Eastern Kentucky University in Criminal Justice in 1974, and went on to earn a Ph.D from Sam Houston State University in Texas.
Thaksin went on to spend a total of fourteen years at the Royal Thai Police Department, eventually being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1987. By this point, Thaksin was burned out with working for the police force. His work may have been less than thrilling; the last position he held before his resignation was "Deputy Superintendent of the Policy and Planning Sub-division of the General Staff Division of the Metropolitan Police Bureau". Not exactly NYPD Blue material.
Thaksin resigned his post at the Royal Police Force, first to market a film he had taken an interest in called "Bann Sai Thong". However, he soon moved into the more lucrative fields of telecommunications and computer software, an area he had gained experience in while negotiating to provide the police department with computer software in 1982. In 1987, he founded the Shinawatra Company as a software marketing firm, but soon after partnered with Pacific Telesis to operate and market a pager service.
The company split soon after, and Thaksin started his own pager company, Shinawatra Paging. The business expanded to include cellular phone service, and became Advanced Info Service- Thailand's largest cell phone service provider. Thaksin also launched Thailand's first communications satellites; previously, Thai businesses had been forced to lease satellite services from satellites owned by other nations.
In 1990, Thaksin went for broke, successfully landing a contract from Thailand's national telephone service, despite the fact that at the time of the negotiations, he didn't actually have the 20 billion baht(!) that he promised to pay in fees for the concession. Thaksin's company (now called the Shin Corporation) is now one of the largest telecommunications conglomerates in Asia with two major divisions (the cell phone business, and a computer communications division), as well as majority holdings in four other telecom businesses.
Thaksin entered politics in 1994, under the banner of the Palang Dharma Party. He was appointed foreign minister, and held this post until February 1995 when the civilian government of Chuan Leekpai lost power. Thaksin was elected to parliament under the new constitution, and was also elected head of the Palang Dharma Party. His leadership of the previously popular party was less than stellar; the party collapsed in 1996. Thaksin was also later forced to step down from his position of Deputy Prime Minister after failing to deliver on promises to solve Bankok's rampant traffic problems.
In the summer of 1998, Thaksin founded the populist Thai Rak Thai ("Thai Love Thai") party. Playing heavily on the theme of cleaning up the corruption in Thai politics, the Thai Rak Thai party and its allies (primarily Chart Thai and Khwam Wang Mai) earned substantial victories at the polls in January 2001. In February, Thaksin was named Thailand's 23rd prime minister
Unfortunately, it was far from smooth sailing for Thaksin. His promises regarding his career-long commitment to cleaning up Thai politics, in particular, came back to haunt him during the first two years of his office. While a number of minor scandals involving various branches of the Thaksin government- from loan frauds in the Ministry of Agriculture to employees skimming 80,000 baht in expressway tolls in Bangkok (traffic again!), the most serious of the challenges Thaksin faced were the allegations that he had concealed much of his personal wealth on required government disclosures by signing accounts and property over to household servants and employees. Thaksin plead ignorance of any wrongdoing, and was eventually cleared by the courts in a close decision. While this was a personal victory for Thaksin, it was seen by many observers as a failed test of the rule of law; a charismatic leader getting away with a crime he was clearly guilty of because of his popularity- a victory for politics based on personality and crony-ism.
Though Thaksin survived this most dangerous test of his leadership, the future is still not clear for him or his government. Various scandals- including the Buddhist monk serving as Thaksin's spiritual advisor being discovered sleeping with female disciples, embezzling money, and pedaling influence- have threatened to drown out Thaksin's policy issues entirely. His initiatives have included forming closer economic ties with other Southeast Asian nations, a development program to eliminate slum conditions in Bangkok and Thailand's larger towns, and a reform of the Thai school system to include management methods closer to those of the private sector.
Whatever the merit of his policy efforts, Thaksin's opponents continue to hope that the scandals surrounding his administration will do their job for them, setting the stage for a change in government. International observers, on the other hand, are hoping that his commitment to eliminating corruption and applying the rule of law will prove to be more serious than his term to date seems to indicate. The popularity that greeted Thaksin when he entered office lead many to believe that he was the leader that would put Thailand on the road to greater political stability and less corruption. Whether he will prove to really be the man for the job remains to be seen.