In 2001, the election of Thaksin as Prime Minister served as a major turning point in the country’s political and social landscape. After successive military governments and army-affiliated strongmen, Thaksin’s landslide win rocked the establishment in Bangkok. The former police officer from Chiang Mai turned telecom mogul proved to be incredibly shrewd and dripping with populist appeal in both his campaigning as a candidate and politicking as Prime Minister.
During his five-year term, Thaksin implemented several lauded social programs, including healthcare initiatives, micro-loan schemes and housing subsidies, which both improved living conditions for the country’s rural majority and consolidated his electoral base.
However, Thaksin also earned a reputation for ruthlessness. His 2003 “War on Drugs” quickly morphed into an extrajudicial killing campaign, which claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people allegedly affiliated with the country’s rampant narcotics trade. He also helped reignite hostilities with Islamic insurgents in Thailand’s restive southern provinces as security personnel carried out massive human rights violations under the auspices of bridling extremists.
After another landslide victory in 2005, Thaksin was accused of corruption after his children sold off their 49% stake of a corporation formerly owned by him to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. The sale erupted into a major political scandal; large swaths of the public held Thaksin responsible for overseeing the sale of the assets deemed critical to Thailand’s infrastructure to foreigners, and for allowing his children to manipulate tax-avoidance loopholes.