Thaksin Shinawatra was born in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand and started his career in the police. He later became a successful telecom tycoon and one of the richest people in Thailand. In 1980, Thaksin married Potjaman Damapong (they divorced in 2008) and they have one son, Panthongtae and two daughters, Pintongtha and Peathongtarn.
He entered politics in 1994, and in 1998 founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thai, or TRT) Party that transformed Thai politics with its highly populist policies to alleviate rural poverty. Poorer voters liked his offers of 30-baht medical care scheme and the debt relief, his nationalist platform and his contempt for the "Bangkok elite". Presenting itself as a nationalist party, at heart, the TRT is little more than a vehicle for the interests and ambitions of its founder-leader.
After a landslide election victory in 2001, Thaksin became the 23rd Prime Minister of Thailand. The first one in Thailand's history to lead a government through a full term in office and then be re-elected in another landslide. One of the most influential political figures, he was also the most polarising character in Thai politics. A populist demagogue, Thaksin manipulated the ignorant rural majority for political power. Some think that he might have been the next Hugo Chávez.
Thaksin was heavily criticised over the violent deaths of more than 2,500 people during a crackdown on drugs in 2003, where he empowered the police to be the judge, the jury and the executioner. Thailand's Corruption Commission found he had failed to declare all of his wealth, and he was also criticised over the government's handling of the upsurge in violence in the largely Muslim south.
The climax of all accusations was the abuse of power and corruption that benefited his family and political cronies, and intimidation of his critics. It's no secret that some newspapers have been neutralised by Thaksin's administration, either by choice or out of economic and political expediency. Some others that had shown resistance have seen their editors removed, one way or another, such as in the cases of the Bangkok Post and Siam Rath weekly news magazine.
On 14th November 2004, Thailand’s Auditor-General Khunying Jaruwan Maintaka stated that corruption of every sort exists at unprecedented levels under the present administration. Later on, an attempted arson took place at her residence.
Yes, double standards prevail in Thailand. Sanan Kachornprasart was convicted by the Constitutional Court of concealing assets and banned from politics for five years. Two weeks later, after having one of his own people appointed to the court, Thaksin was absolved (by 8:7 split vote) of the same well documented offence. The acquittal allowed him to become the most corrupt, murderous, dictatorial and divisive prime ministers Thailand has ever known.
But above all, it was the tax-free deal in early 2006 in which Thaksin sold his family's shares in Thailand's leading telecom group, Shin Corporation, to Singapore's Temasek Holdings, netting the clan some $2 Billion, that led to Thaksin's downfall. By undermining Thai political system and its independent bodies, Thaksin lost all remnants of support of Thai political elite and Bangkok's middle class.
Amid large-scale street demonstrations, Thaksin called a snap general election for April 2006, effectively telling opponents to "put up or shut up". But main opposition parties boycotted the election and many voters chose to register a "no vote".
Faced with the threat of further protests, Thaksin said he would step down. And he did for a few weeks, but returned to office in May. On 19th September 2006, following months of political uncertainty, the military seized power while Thaksin was out of the country attending the United Nations General Assembly.
"I have no political ambitions, I am calling it quits" Thaksin pledged on several occasions including the interview to the TIME magazine on 1st Ferbruary 2007, but he didn't keep his promise... realising that his popularity among Thailand's rural poor remained sky-high, and using it to clear his name and get his hands on his frozen millions.
Assets Examination Committee froze ฿76 Billion (~$2.1 Billion) of his assets in Thailand, claiming he had become unusually wealthy while in office. Thaksin and his family have declared a total of ฿15.1 Billion in assets when he took office in 2001. To date, no legal judgments have been made yet about his wealth.
In October 2008, Thaksin was sentenced in absentia to 2-year imprisonment by the Supreme Court after he was found to have abused his power while prime minister (in 2003) by helping his then wife buy land in Bangkok’s prime business area at a discounted price. Thaksin faces at least six other criminal cases of corruption, should he return to Thailand.
Lawyers representing Thaksin and Potjaman Shinawatra were found guitly and sentenced to 6-month in jail for an attempt to bribe the Supreme Court with ฿2 Million in a pastry box. The incident was disclosed on 11th June 2008 and dubbed as "PastryGate". Thaksin denied any involvement in the attempted bribery, but as with many moot things surrounding him, lots of harsh questions remain.
Thaksin's ex-wife Khunying Potjaman Damapong is currently out on a Five-Million-Baht bail while appealing her 31st June 2008 case for avoiding a tax payment of ฿546 Million.
For more information on chain of events in the aftermath of the 2006 coup d'état that overthrew Thaksin refer to: Thailand Modern History and Politics.
On 25 May 2010, Thai Criminal Court approves 'terrorism' warrant for Thaksin.