Thai activists want to know: Is ‘inmate’ Thaksin getting VIP treatment?

Jitsiree Thongnoi
Thai activists want to know: Is ‘inmate’ Thaksin getting VIP treatment? Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra walks at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok after arriving on a flight that brought him back from exile, Aug. 22, 2023.
Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Thai activists are demanding to know exactly what is wrong with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after authorities extended his stay in a hospital ward – instead of a prison cell.

The perception of a special arrangement for Thaksin, who has been in hospital for nearly five months, is igniting accusations of unequal treatment before the law, clouding Thailand’s legal and democratic landscape, they say.

The ex-PM has been receiving treatment for various health problems in a ward at the Police General Hospital in Bangkok reserved for VIPs. Thaksin is generally known to be suffering from a heart and lung condition as well as chronic back pain. 

Citing patient privacy, Thai corrections officials, however, declined to give more specific details when they recently announced they were allowing him to stay in hospital longer.

A statement from the Department of Corrections did not give a timeframe for how much longer but said the agency agreed “that Thaksin has to continue his stay in the hospital due to health conditions that need close medical attention.” 

Puangtip Boonsanong is among Thai activists who have doubts that Thaksin’s prolonged stay in the hospital can be justified, especially given that the former leader is a convict. 

“There are other inmates who are more sick but don’t get treated the same,” Puangtip, a lawyer for the Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand, an activist group, told BenarNews. 

Thaksin is serving a 1-year prison term – which was slashed from an original sentence of eight years via a decree by the country’s king – on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

The 74-year-old Thaksin, who is viewed as a divisive figure in Thai politics, was sent to prison on the same day that a private jet brought him home from 17 years of exile – save for a brief homecoming in 2008. But he spent less than 24 hours in a prison cell before being transferred to the hospital in the wee hours on Aug. 23.  

On the night of Aug. 22 – the day he returned to Thailand – Thaksin was suffering from insomnia, chest pain, high blood pressure and low oxygen, Thai corrections officials told reporters. They said he was transferred after midnight to the police hospital because it was better equipped to deal with life-threatening heart conditions.

The Maha Bhumibol Rachanusorn 88th Birthday Anniversary Building, part of the Police General Hospital, is seen in Bangkok, Aug. 23, 2023. [Sakchai Lalit/AP]

Earlier this month, Puangtip’s group organized a small gathering at Government House, where Prime Minister Srettha works. It plans to organize another gathering in February, when Thaksin might be eligible for parole after nominally having served six months of his sentence.

The government of Srettha, who was elected PM by the House of Representatives on the very day that Thaksin returned from exile in Dubai, has faced growing public calls in recent weeks to reveal the details of Thaksin’s health conditions.

Critics are questioning whether Thaksin is getting VIP treatment compared with other inmates at Thai prisons who are sick and elderly but don’t have such privileges. 

This week, corrections officials declared that any male prisoner would no longer be referred to in public as a “male inmate,” as they responded to criticism about why the former prime minister was not being referred to as “male inmate Thaksin Shinawatra.”  

In Thailand, it is customary for an incarcerated person to be referred to as a “male inmate” or “female inmate” in place of the usual “mister or miss.”

Thaksin, a former police officer who made a fortune as a telecoms tycoon, was elected prime minister in 2001.

Since he was deposed in a military coup in 2006, he lived in exile in the United Arab Emirates, while maintaining political influence at home through the Shinawatra family’s political machine and the mobilization of its grassroots supporters known as the red shirts.
Thaksin’s sister Yingluck also served as prime minister, but was toppled in a coup in 2014. In the run-up to last May’s general election, his daughter Paetongtorn was a prime ministerial hopeful for Pheu Thai. 

This past Wednesday, the Department of Corrections said that Thaksin’s age and state of health meant he could be eligible for parole, although the process to grant him that had not yet been initiated.

Srettha Thavisin, Thailand’s new prime minister, arrives at Government House in Bangkok, Sept. 6, 2023. [Sakchai Lalit/AP]

In early December the department issued a new regulation allowing qualified inmates to be detained outside of prison. The move spurred more public speculation that this was being done to accommodate Thaksin.

“[H]e should be in jail like ordinary people,” Puangtip said. “A sick inmate usually seeks treatment at the Department of Corrections Hospital first but, in the case of Thaksin, he was moved to the Police General Hospital straight away. The public has no idea the details of his sickness or how serious it is.”

A political price

Despite the public calls for transparency about Thaksin’s prison sentence and whether this rich man is receiving preferential treatment while on paper being behind bars, the critics doubt they can make a dent on the current political reality.

Part of this stems from the palace’s announcement on Sept. 1 that King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) had decreed that Thaksin’s sentence be reduced from eight years to 1.

Because the monarchy in Thailand is shielded in by lèse-majesté, a strict law that guards against royal defamation or speech perceived as critical of the king, the discussion surrounding Thaksin’s reduced sentence has been muted, according to Thida Thavornseth, another activist.

Thaksin landed in Bangkok on the same day that Srettha was voted in by Parliament to serve as the first civilian prime minister in more than nine years. However, his appointment remains controversial because Pheu Thai was not the party that won the largest share of parliamentary seats in the May 2023 polls. 

The progressive Move Forward Party and its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, won the lion’s share but military-aligned lawmakers blocked his path to the post of prime minister. They allowed Pheu Thai to come to power after it agreed to join forces with more conservative parties linked to the military and the old junta.

Anti-government demonstrators shout insults at police outside the Police General Hospital in Bangkok, April 9, 2010. The demonstrations were part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed him from power. [David Longstreath/AP file photo]

Thida is a former leader of the red shirts, a rural movement formed by Thaksin’s supporters who stood against the military in the years following the coup that forced Thaksin to go into exile. 

The political arrangement that allowed Srettha to come to power and played a part in Thaksin’s return is justified in the eyes of the red shirts, Thida said.

“In the May 2023 election, some red shirts voted for Move Forward, while some still supported Pheu Thai,” Thida told BenarNews. “In any case, a majority of them want to see Thaksin return and stay comfortably in Thailand after 17 years of being treated unfairly.”

After the 2006 coup, Thai politics was defined by the tension between pro-democracy Thaksin supporters and pro-establishment anti-Thaksin camp that culminated in the 2010 military crackdown of red-shirt demonstrations in Bangkok that resulted in 99 deaths. 

The Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand, which is allied with the former anti-Thaksin camp, is working to collect 20,000 signatures to petition the house speaker and the supreme court of Thailand to investigate the work of the corrections department on Thaksin’s case. But so far, the group has collected about 1,000 signatures, Puangtip said.

Parliamentarians denied entry

In October, an image of Thaksin on a gurney was circulated on social media as he was being moved to another building at the Police General Hospital.

The corrections department confirmed that the image was authentic and that Thaksin was receiving CT and MRI scans at the time.

Earlier this month, Parliament’s Committee on Police Affairs sought permission from the police chief to enter the hospital premises, according to reports. Committee members were allowed in on the 14th floor where Thaksin reportedly stays, but were not allowed into the room where Thaksin was said to be in.

The committee was told that Thaksin was the only in-patient inmate at the hospital. 

“There was already a question from the start if Pheu Thai took power to protect Thaksin or to just serve the Shinawatra family,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist from Thailand’s Ubon Ratchathani University.

“Times have changed. The demographic structure has changed. Whether or not Thaksin is in or outside of the prison cells, it doesn’t make a big difference because there is no strong connection or bonds between Thaksin and the younger generation.”


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