Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn has reduced the prison sentence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from eight years to one, in a remarkable turn of events that caps an extraordinary decades-long political saga.
Thaksin, the head of a famed political dynasty who had dramatically returned to Thailand from a 15-year self-imposed exile last week, submitted a request for a royal pardon, the country’s outgoing justice minister confirmed Thursday.
A statement published by Thailand’s Royal Gazette Friday said the King had acknowledged Thaksin’s piea and, “with His Majesty’s graciousness, he has reduced the sentence of the male inmate Thaksin Shinawatra to one year.”
The statement added that Thaksin’s service to the country, loyalty to the monarchy and that he had “confessed and regretted” his past actions was taken into account.
“He used to hold a position as the prime minister of Thailand who served the country and his works benefited the people and the country. He holds his loyalty to the monarchy. And when he was charged and convicted by the court to the mentioned imprisonment sentence, with his respect in the justice system, he confessed and regretted to his acts,” the statement said.
“He was willing to serve the sentence while being elderly and having health issues and sickness that must be treated by specialist doctors.”
The statement did not say when exactly Thaksin had submitted his plea for a royal pardon. The king’s command was dated August 31 and undersigned by outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who toppled an elected government once run by Thaksin’s sister.
Thaksin, 74, was prime minister from 2001 until he was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He returned to Thailand briefly in 2008 before fleeing the country over a corruption conviction.
For the first time since he fled, Thaksin flew back to Thailand in a private jet on August 22, where he was met in Bangkok by his family and supporters.
He was taken into custody and sentenced by the Supreme Court to eight years in prison for conflict of interest, abuse of power and corruption during his time in power. Thaksin was found guilty of the charges in absentia during his exile.
Outgoing Justice Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam confirmed to reporters Thursday that he had received Thaksin’s letter requesting a royal pardon from King Vajiralongkorn.
Wissanu, a veteran survivor of Thailand’s febrile politics who has served in government both under Thaksin and with subsequent military juntas, said the royal pardon request will proceed accordingly and “will be processed in accordance with the rules.”
“It is all up to His Majesty’s kindness,” he said.
After his return to Thailand, Thaksin was taken to prison but the following day was transferred to hospital due to chest tightness, high blood pressure and low oxygen levels, according to the Thai Corrections Department, which said his underlying heart disease could not be treated at a prison hospital and that he would need specialist care.
Hours after his arrival in Thailand, parliament chose Srettha Thavisin of the populist Pheu Thai party to be the country’s 30th prime minister.
To secure the needed parliamentary votes, Pheu Thai had entered into a coalition with two military-backed parties linked to the military junta that toppled Pheu Thai’s democratically elected government, led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, nearly a decade ago.
Pheu Thai is the latest party of the powerful Shinawatra political dynasty founded by Thaksin that has been a dominating force in Thai politics for 20 years.
Some analysts believe Thaksin may have struck a deal with the country’s powerful conservative and royalist establishment for his return – given his court convictions and the charges against him – in exchange for a reduced jail term, lenient treatment, or a possible pardon.
Thaksin has reportedly denied making such an arrangement.
However, the apparent speediness of the king’s decision is noteworthy.
“The expeditious period appears to be part of a deal. Pheu Thai leads a coalition government including pro-military parties to keep the Move Forward Party in the opposition and away,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.
Move Forward won the most votes and the most seats in Thailand’s May election on a platform of radical change, including to the kingdom’s monarchy, a hugely taboo subject. It was later sidelined and prevented from forming a government.
“With Move Forward being the new threat – calling for reforms of the military and monarchy – we would not have this pardon so speedily and the formation of the government as we see under Srettha and Pheu Thai,” Thitinan said.
“The fix is in, it’s a done deal and Thailand moves forward from here but under an uneasy circumstances.”
In Thailand, prisoners can request a royal pardon through the justice minister, who passes the application to the prime minister and then on the the King for final approval.
The caretaker government, led by outgoing prime minister and 2014 coup leader Prayut, only has a few weeks left in power before the new government – and new prime minister and Thaksin ally Srettha – is sworn in.
A divisive figure, Thaksin is a billionaire telecommunications mogul who built his political power on policies popular with Thailand’s rural poor, who made up the majority of the country’s population. But his policies were anathema to the country’s rich elites and conservatives who accused Thaksin of being a dangerous and corrupt populist.