Lunch with the FT illustration of Thaksin Shinawatra by James Ferguson
© James Ferguson

To his enemies, the fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a megalomaniac villain straight out of James Bond, who manipulates events at home from his various bases around the world. Thaksin, who briefly owned the Premier League football club Manchester City, has houses in at least six countries and travels on a Montenegrin passport these days, after authorities at home ripped up his Thai documents. So it feels a touch bathetic to meet him not in some gilded island lair, but at a Chinese chain restaurant in a Singapore shopping mall, with not a white cat in sight.

In a private room away from the noise of families enjoying late Chinese new year lunches, Thaksin tells me that what he sees as the unwarranted “negative imagination” about him is one reason he has agreed to our meal, two years after I first invited him. “I’ve been quiet for many years, but now my sister said, ‘You should speak out, because otherwise the misunderstanding will be there’,” he explains. “I’m not really fighting to go back [home]. But I’m fighting the injustice against me and my supporters.”

Plenty would question Thaksin’s definition of “quiet”, just as every aspect of his legacy is fiercely argued about. An almost occult hate figure among the generals who run Thailand and their establishment allies, he remains an enduring — if tarnished — hero to many in rural areas, where his governments lavished spending and sparked new thinking about the traditional social order.

Almost eight years after he last set foot in Thailand, he continues to loom over the political crisis that was triggered when the military ousted him in 2006. Control of government has swung back and forth between elected administrations loyal to Thaksin — including one led by his sister Yingluck, whom he once famously described as his “clone” — and imposed leaders from or acceptable to the military. Scores of people have died in protests such as the army crackdown in 2010 on pro-Thaksin “red shirts” who had occupied parts of Bangkok , which claimed more than 80 lives.

Since the junta seized power from Yingluck’s government in May 2014, Thaksin has sniped periodically on social media. But recently he has taken a higher-profile stand. A new near-300-page coffee table book of his “life and times” presents him as a figure of heroic accomplishments. Today, dressed plainly in jeans, shirt and dark jacket, his pre-lunch chat over jasmine tea ranges from how he found the north-west English accent hard to understand (“The Mancunian thing — my God!”) to his interest — business and personal — in medical technology companies. The 66-year-old tells me he keeps his skin looking polished by using a facial serum, customised to his DNA and made by a British business in which he has invested. He has sunk $7m more of his estimated $1bn fortune into another business that is working on breathalysers that may be able to pick up early signs of diseases such as tuberculosis, diabetes or even cancers. “I like biogenic biomedicine,” he enthuses boyishly.

Thaksin tells me that he is a regular at the restaurant so, at my suggestion, he orders for us both. His selection includes a very expensive bowl of soup made with fish maw, or swim bladder, which is believed to offer a range of benefits for the lungs, kidneys and skin.

Contrary to what many — including the junta — believe, he insists: “I’m not interested in becoming prime minister again. I’m not crazy to be in power.” Instead he talks of the need to return freedom and dignity to the Thai people. He appeals for the generals to negotiate with him to end the political stalemate in a country whose economic growth rate and status among Southeast Asia’s leading powers have faltered amid the swings between military and civilian rule. “We’ve delayed our development for 10 years. We moved our country backward instead of focusing on the future.”

He goes further. The man whose premiership disintegrated in a welter of claims of abuses of power now accuses the military rulers in Bangkok of the same. “We’re probably comparable to North Korea,” he says of a junta that has cracked down hard on dissent, if not yet turned Bangkok into Pyongyang. “Any ruler that doesn’t respect the people, and neglects the people, will not last long,” he says.

It’s clear that Thaksin has lost none of the populist chutzpah that saw the party he formed in 1998, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), win an epoch-making election in 2001. He became the first prime minister of Thailand to serve a full term before winning a landslide re-election in 2005. Allegations of authoritarianism and of conflicts between his premiership and his business interests grew, however, and the military seized its chance to topple him the following year when he was in New York for the UN General Assembly.

A decade on, he continues to enjoy a significant following, particularly in the country’s vast rural north, though he denies reports that he has been governing by Skype, through his sister and others. In a characterisation that will raise a few eyebrows in Thailand, he insists that his role has simply been that of benevolent adviser, rather than guiding hand. “I have been teaching for many years so I still have my culture of teaching. Even in the cabinet, within my prime ministership, I read books and I gave lectures to the cabinet before starting the agenda.”

He sees himself as a spokesman for democracy in a country where surface internationalism coexists with strong conservative forces that regard deference to authority as an essential part of “Thai-ness”. Tossing out critical observations by Winston Churchill on democracy and Max Weber on bureaucracy, he argues that Thailand’s flawed system of elected governance is still better than a military-controlled alternative.

But, as plates of pork, duck and dim sum arrive in swift succession, the conversation turns to the long list of attacks on his rule.

Thaksin’s detractors accuse the administrations led by or aligned with him of wasting colossal amounts of money. In 2008, two years after he was ousted, he was handed a criminal conviction over his alleged role in a land purchase five years earlier by his then-wife — a verdict he claims was politically motivated. (He blames the charge on mistaken advice that he should sign a document he didn’t need to approve.) Later, an expensive rice subsidy scheme run by Yingluck’s government left large stockpiles in warehouses and triggered a criminal negligence charge against her — that case, still ongoing, also has a strong whiff of politics about it.

Darker stains on Thaksin’s record are the thousands of deaths and disappearances that occurred during the country’s “war on drugs” and as part of the security forces’ bloody battle against mostly Muslim insurgents in the country’s south. In one notorious 2004 incident, 78 people who had been detained after a southern protest suffocated or were crushed to death in a truck.

When I press Thaksin on what responsibility he bears for these killings, especially after urging the police to be ruthless in dealing with the drugs trade, he sidesteps in an unexpected direction: he didn’t really mean it, he says. He was “bluffing” the drug dealers, just as he bluffed insurgents in the south. “That’s my style, of bluffing,” he says. “If you monitor what Donald Trump is saying, he’s bluffing, the man. That’s really the culture of a businessman.”

I ask him if he is comparing himself to Trump. Sensing danger, he starts to qualify his position. While there is “some similarity” between the pair of them, their personal attitudes “may be not the same”. “But the cultures are very similar, the culture of being a businessman,” he goes on. “And then when successful businessmen come to politics, they give fresh air to political campaigns.”

He should know. Long before Trump became a contender for the US Republican party nomination, Thaksin showed how a plutocrat-politician could skate over his own inconsistencies to harness anti-elite resentment. Part of a generation whose ancestors had immigrated from China, he grew up in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, where his father was a businessman and MP. He joined the police, then won a scholarship to study criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University in the US. From there, he launched into ventures that would eventually earn him a fortune from telecommunications and television.

His rise coincided with Thailand’s manufacturing-led economic growth surge in the 1980s and early 1990s. He went into politics in the mid-90s, rising to become foreign minister, and was perfectly placed to offer himself as the business-savvy leader required to power the country’s second coming after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

Thaksin’s great insight was to realise how the door had opened to a new political force. Thailand’s aristocratic political class had drawn up a relatively liberal constitution, but it had also neglected and even shown contempt for rural voters. Thaksin pledged to bring wealth to the country’s farming heartlands and he delivered, with programmes for village microcredit and dollar-a-treatment healthcare.

When I ask where he developed this concern for the rural masses, he gives a surprisingly paternalistic answer. He says he spotted farmers toiling in the paddy fields when he was a boy on motorbike rides to school with his father. Later, he saw more of country people’s lives through workers he hired for the orange groves on his farm. “I [felt] like I should help, because I know how to work myself from nothing to be a rich
man,” he said, perhaps underplaying the privileges offered by his father’s social status.

He makes little attempt to play down his own personal wealth. Thaksin, like Trump, flaunts it as an important part of his aspirational pitch, even after Thai authorities seized 46bn baht (now $1.3bn) over the criminal case against him. He is visibly pleased with his newly acquired top-of-the-range Patek Philippe watch. And, though we are not drinking wine, he drops in a story to establish his credentials as a connoisseur.

He says he once asked an MP who imported drinks for him to buy a dozen bottles of “the most expensive wine in the world”. That ended up costing him 2m baht . “And then a friend of mine, he drank [a glass] and he said, ‘Oh, we’re drinking one motorcycle — equivalent to one motorcycle’,” Thaksin recalls. “Do you know what I thought? ‘Oh, you’re rich, but do not be stupid’. So since then, I learnt more about wine, not just to go by price.”

We return to the subject of Thailand’s future and the questions that all sides in its conflict will have to deal with sooner or later. I ask whether he agrees that the generals’ real — although never articulated — aim is to be in power during the crucial succession to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s authoritative but ailing monarch of almost 70 years. “I heard people saying that but I believe they enjoy the power,” he remarks insouciantly, avoiding a more expansive answer by pouncing on and wolfing down a large piece of prawn dim sum.

He’s careful to stress that he’s not calling for an uprising against the junta, despite his disdain for their rule and their “crazy” draft constitution that would emasculate electorally popular politicians like him. When I ask him if he might at some point urge fresh protests by “red shirts” and other groups historically — though not uniformly — aligned to him, he curtly replies “no” and says he is too busy travelling. He immediately creates another gastronomic distraction, calling in the waitress to ask for black vinegar and mustard.

At the end of the meal, he offers me a copy of his slab of a book. It boasts of his fighting qualities, foresight and courage, culminating in a famous image of him prostrating himself on his return for his last months in Thailand in February 2008.

Yet, not for the first time, I sense uncertainty beneath the braggadocio. Can a man who once broke bread with fellow heads of government be entirely satisfied with life as a super-elite nomad, making boutique healthcare investments, trawling high-end malls and politicking from afar? Is his renewed public profile as much an attempt to remain relevant as a challenge to the junta?

“I’m trying to spend my time abroad efficiently, not just hanging around, waiting to go back,” he says. “I just want to do something beneficial for me and for the country in the future.”

As we get up to leave, I ask why the generals and their establishment allies hate him quite so much. He seems puzzled and we stand looking at each other for so long that I almost speak again to break the silence. Then he says that it’s about their “paranoia, because I’m the only prime minister in history that can win a landslide and can stay a full four years.”

Then this footloose democrat-autocrat conjures a final contradiction. Having talked of how a party aligned to him would sweep elections promised for next year, he says the generals “worry too much” about the threat he poses. Their obsession with subduing him shouldn’t lead them to “burn the whole house to catch one rat,” he warns. Ambiguous to the last, he adds: “I’m really a rat. But they make me a tiger.”

Michael Peel is the FT’s Bangkok regional correspondent

Illustration by James Ferguson

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