After Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha [center] ousted the government of [left] Thaksin Shinawatra's sister, then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra [upper right], the battle between the Shinawatra family and the military has fixated credit:  Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich  

BANGKOK, Thailand -- While visiting Bangkok in 2003, then-President George W. Bush designated Thailand a "non-NATO treaty ally" and congratulated Thaksin Shinawatra, the popular, elected, civilian prime minister.

Three years later, a desperate, panicking Mr. Thaksin secretively alerted Mr. Bush about "a threat to democracy in Thailand" by "extra-constitutional tactics" just before a 2006 military coup toppled him.

Today, Mr. Thaksin is a prisoner beginning a one-year sentence -- reduced by the king from eight years -- for financial corruption, ending 15 years as an international fugitive by voluntarily returning to Bangkok on August 22.

This is where so-called "Thai-style democracy" gets tricky, opaque, and imaginative.

Hours after Mr. Thaksin returned and was arrested, Parliament ended a three-month standoff and elected Mr. Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party colleague, a politically inexperienced real estate tycoon, Srettha Thavisin, 60, as prime minister.

Mr. Srettha, a billionaire relatively unknown to the public, said he will "improve the living conditions of all Thai people."

Mr. Thaksin meanwhile is undergoing a surprising rehabilitation.

He is being politically weaponized for what may prove to be a mission impossible, but this time Mr. Thaksin is on the side of the military and conservatives who overthrew him in the putsch.

Their new combined enemy is the Move Forward Party (MFP) and its fiercely outspoken leader Pita Limjaroenrat, a wildly popular, civilian, progressive politician.

Mr. Pita was on his way to become prime minister after winning the national election for Parliament's House in May, campaigning to slash the military's political powers, budget, and lucrative commercial activities, and end conscription.

He also wanted to weaken the royal defamation law, Criminal Code Section 112, which imprisons people for up to 15 years for criticizing the monarchy.

When the worried military, royalists, and other conservatives counted the 14 million votes which Mr. Pita scored to become front-runner for the prime ministry, and compared their candidates' poor polls, they looked for reinforcements to protect their threatened fiefdoms.

"Everyone knows that Thaksin has returned to Thailand having a mission to fight politics against the Move Forward Party," Rangsit University political science lecturer Wanwichit Boonprong said in an interview.

"It [the MFP] was viewed by conservatives as a more dangerous threat than Thaksin and Pheu Thai.

"His return is like receiving a special signal for his Pheu Thai party to take on an important mission, even if he is in prison for criminal cases.

"If there was a special mission order from Thaksin given to him, Mr. Srettha would most certainly be forced to accept it unconditionally," Mr. Wanwichit said.

Kasit Piromya, a 2008-11 foreign minister in an anti-Thaksin government, agreed.

"Inside the Pheu Thai Party, I believe Mr. Thaksin and his wife are in control," Mr. Kasit said in an interview.

"They are the owners of the party.  Mr. Srettha is only a tool or a puppet. 

"Mr. Thaksin has to share powers with the military generals, retired and serving.

"He and Srettha, and all the conservative elements, have now a formidable force to reckon with, namely, the Move Forward Party and the younger generation who want change," Mr. Kasit said.

As a result despite being imprisoned, Mr. Thaksin is helping to rule Thailand by influencing Prime Minister Srettha's government, whipping up public support for their party, and keeping Mr. Pita's MFP in Parliament's opposition.

"Formally, de jure, Srettha is in charge. De facto, it is Thaksin -- except for economic policy," Paul Chambers, Naresuan University lecturer in Southeast Asian affairs, said in an interview.

"This was one of the demands that Srettha had, to become a prime ministerial candidate. He wanted to gain control over, and lead, Thai economic policy," Mr. Chambers said.

In exchange for helping his former arch-enemies and risking his freedom by returning to Bangkok, Mr. Thaksin presumably expects to avoid, or alleviate, the Supreme Court's eight-year prison sentence for three financial crimes he committed during his administration.

Some suspect he may already be receiving VIP treatment.

When his private jet arrived in Bangkok on Aug. 22, authorities allowed him to thank hundreds of supporters at the airport, before taking him to Bangkok's grim Remand Prison.

But around midnight, Mr. Thaksin, 74, was transferred across town to the Police General Hospital's Intermediate Care Unit to treat his heart and lung disease, high blood pressure, and a herniated disc, the Corrections Department said.

Mr. Thaksin would not be given favored treatment, or be allowed to move into his family's private hospital in Bangkok, or shift to house arrest, it said.

He petitioned the king for freedom and received a reduction in his prison sentence.

Relatives and lawyers began visiting him in the hospital on August 28.

Thailand's U.S.-trained military has dominated politics in this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation through more than a dozen coups since World War II.

With no major foreign military threats during the 21st century, the army's fight has mostly been against Mr. Thaksin, his political family's dynastic heirs, and their pro-Thaksin Red Shirt insurrectionists.

For example, the current military-led, outgoing government has ruled in various formats since a 2014 coup against the government of Mr. Thaksin's elected sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Ms. Yingluck remains an international fugitive dodging convictions for her administration's corruption.

She tearfully hugged her brother farewell in Singapore when he flew to Bangkok, and posted the video online.

Ms. Yingluck apparently did not secure a deal for her to return without imprisonment.

"I will be strong and persevere. I will look after myself even in a foreign land alone," she wrote in a post, referring to her five-star self-exile as a fugitive.

Since the 2006 putsch, however, Mr. Thaksin has been the man the military loved to hate, frequently demonizing him as the worst person in Thailand starting with his 2001 landslide election victory as prime minister.

The junta justified its 2006 coup by citing Mr. Thaksin's alleged financial corruption, disrespect to the monarchy, and anti-drug campaign which resulted in 2,500 extrajudicial deaths.

Today, Mr. Thaksin has a new enemy, "the very large and very popular Move Forward party, which detests him now that Pheu Thai made a deal with military parties, and progressives within Pheu Thai itself, who are frustrated also that the deal occurred," Mr. Chambers said.

In his new role collaborating with the military, royalists, and other conservatives against Mr. Pita's reform campaigns, Mr. Thaksin will not be as strong as he was during his authoritarian prime ministry.

"He no longer has control and influence over the armed forces, including the police," former foreign minister Mr. Kasit said.

"He has to share power with the conservative and military establishment.  He has to rebuild his power base, as many of his Red Shirt supporters have deserted him or become disillusioned with his compromise with the military establishment," Mr. Kasit said.

Newly elected civilian politicians in Parliament's 500-seat House must share power with the junta-appointed 250-seat Senate.

Prime Minister Srettha and Parliament are also expected to avoid interfering in the military's cliquish promotions of officers on October 1.

The new civilian-military government meanwhile is a vulnerable trapeze act above the army's safety net.

Mr. Srettha was able to secure his prime ministry only by agreeing to include, in his 11-party coalition, two political parties -- United Thai and Palang Pracharath -- spawned by the 2014 coup.

United Thai was built by outgoing coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth.

Palang Pracharath is led by Mr. Prayuth's former Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon who joined his junta.

When the two hardened military leaders' parties joined Mr. Srettha's coalition, other outgoing military-friendly parties signed up as well, including Bhumjai Thai's 76 elected members led by Mr. Prayuth's Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul.

Those three former opponents of Pheu Thai now form a block of 136 House members in Mr. Srettha's coalition, almost equal to Pheu Thai's 141.

That block can frustrate his coalition's attempts to pass legislation, or yank support to collapse his administration.

Parliament's House and Senate enthusiastically voted 482 for Mr. Srettha to be prime minister, with 164 against, and 81 abstentions.  He needed only 376.

Mr. Srettha, Mr. Thaksin, and their Pheu Thai party were criticized by supporters for including the army's parties in the government and "betraying" Thailand's 21st century pro-democracy struggle against military domination.

Mr. Thaksin's return brought a fresh burst of threats and promises by his opponents and supporters, indicating Thailand's long-running political hysteria about Mr. Thaksin is being rekindled.

Mr. Thaksin's 2001 landslide election sparked Thailand's current political confrontations when his populist policies, inexpensive health care, scholarships, and other assistance impressed rural and neglected Thais who perceived him as their savior.

The military, royalists, and conservative elite perceived him as a nouveau riche rival to their "old money" status.

They portrayed Mr. Thaksin as a greedhead, scarfing up whatever he and his family and cronies could lift while using his populist policies as a shield.

After the 2006 coup, Mr. Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 when criminal cases, which he claimed were politically motivated, began piling up against him.

Courts had convicted Mr. Thaksin of four separate financial crimes, but the statute of limitations expired on one case by the time he returned on August 22 -- his first time in Thailand in 15 years of self-exile.

Based mostly in Dubai, he used Internet and private meetings to lead his supporters in Thailand through elections, a bloody insurrection, party name changes, and a difficult comeback campaign.

In July 2006, then-prime minister Thaksin secretively sent a 544-word letter to President George W. Bush, later made public, which said:

"There has been a threat to democracy in Thailand since early this year.

"Having failed to provoke violence and disorder, my opponents are now attempting various extra-constitutional tactics to co-opt the will of the people."

On July 3, Mr. Bush's 138-word reply said:

"Free and open political systems can be unpredictable."

Less than three months later, Mr. Thaksin was ousted in the September 20, 2006 coup.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at