BANGKOK — Thailand’s king on Friday reduced former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's eight-year prison term to a single year following the divisive politician's return last week from 15 years of self-imposed exile.
The action may mark a symbolic end to the political schism that has wracked the Southeast Asian nation since Thaksin was forced from power by the army 17 years ago, leaving democracy endangered.
Thai media, citing Justice Ministry sources, reported that Thaksin can apply for parole after serving one-third of his sentence, or four months. They said the former leader, who was moved to a hospital suite following a brief prison stay after complaining of ill health, could remain there for that period with permission from the Correction Department’s chief.
The decision by King Maha Vajiralongkorn was published in the Royal Gazette, making it effective immediately. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, giving the king the final word on pardons of convicted criminals.
Thaksin, 74, was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006 and accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespecting the monarchy. He fled Thailand in 2008 when he faced prison time on charges he described as politically motivated.
It is widely believed that Thaksin returned out of hope that a new government friendly to him would reduce his sentence, and that he may have made a deal with the authorities who for years were his bitter antagonists.
Hours after Thaksin’s return, Srettha Thavisin of the Thaksin-affiliated Pheu Thai party won enough votes in Parliament to become prime minister, ending more than three months of uncertainty following national elections in May. Pheu Thai was able to cobble together a majority by forming a coalition with pro-military parties linked to a 2014 coup that ousted a government formed by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
The decree granting Thaksin royal clemency said he had acknowledged his guilt. It said Thaksin had worked to benefit the country and was loyal to the monarchy, and could use his knowledge and abilities to help the nation and its people.
After his return, Thaksin was sent to prison but was quickly transferred to a state hospital because of what the prison described as high blood pressure and low oxygen, difficulty sleeping and tightness in his chest.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who is also acting justice minister, dismissed speculation that Thaksin was being treated with special leniency. He said in a telephone interview on Friday that Thaksin will be treated as a normal convict and will be returned to prison to serve his term once his health issues are cleared up. Wissanu will soon lose his positions when Srettha’s government takes office.
Thaksin became prime minister in 2001 by promoting populist policies and using his telecommunications fortune to build his own political party, and was easily reelected in 2005.
Thailand's traditional royalist ruling class felt threatened by Thaksin's popularity. His ouster set off years of sometimes violent confrontations between his supporters and opponents. Political parties with his backing continued to win elections but were forced from power several times by the courts and the army, both bulwarks of royalism.
The evident easing of the enmity between Thaksin and the royalist establishment accelerated after May's election, which was won by a new progressive party, Move Forward, which proposed mild reforms to the monarchy, big business and the military, which has staged more than a dozen coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
Move Forward's surprise victory resulted from a widespread desire, particularly among young people, for deep structural change in Thailand after nine years of military-backed rule.
Move Forward sought to form a ruling coalition, but under constitutional provisions designed to protect military-backed rule, non-elected members of the strongly royalist Senate denied the party enough votes to take power.
Pheu Thai, which placed second in the election, had vowed during the campaign that it would not join any pro-military party in forming a government. But with Move Forward blocked, it formed its own broader coalition with parties backed by the military, which for years had done everything it could to keep Thaksin’s proxy parties from power.
“The whole process since the election has been one reflecting Thailand’s elite undoing the electorate’s vote for change, for a new direction,” said Kevin Hewison, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina and a veteran Thai studies scholar.
“A deal was done. Everyone knows this. Pheu Thai put Thaksin's interests above those of the electorate. It did a deal with those it promised it would not deal with. It is in coalition with all of the conservative and pro-military forces that have held power since 2014," Hewison said in an email.
“That the sentence reduction was granted by the king in a matter of hours of the request is confirmation of the elite deal. It is symbolic of a pattern of elite rule where the popular voice is simply ignored.”