The autocratic billionaire accused of running his country for personal gain

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The Independent Online

It has been almost too easy to caricature Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra; like Silvio Berlusconi, the European counterpart to whom he is so often compared, he gave plenty of ammunition to his enemies.

The billionaire businessman described Washington as a "useless friend" after the Americans denounced his human rights record, and he fumed that "the UN is not my father" after stern words from diplomats questioned his bloody campaign against drug-dealers, which resulted in 3,000 extra-judicial killings.

He even hid the first outbreak of bird flu in a vain attempt to protect Thai poultry exports, almost risking a global pandemic in the process.

The anti-Thaksin chants that resounded in Bangkok's streets and outside shopping malls this spring were gradually taken up by Thais across all generations and classes. And now the army has risen up against the autocratic policeman turned billionaire premier.

The efforts of Thai Rak Thai ­ the ruling party founded by Mr Thaksin in 1998 ­ have backfired. After five years in office, Thaksin Shinawatra is on his way out. A political era in Thailand is drawing to an end.

Mr Thaksin's critics have always maintained that an excess of hubris and greed would bring about his downfall. The dam only broke when he used a legal loophole to sell his family's telecommunications conglomerate, ShinCorp, overseas and secure a tax-free profit of $1.9bn (£1bn). In a country where the gap between haves and have-nots has been widening under his governance, it was a deal too far.

Bangkok's power elite and tax-strapped middle classes were incensed when they realised that the wife of Singapore's leader would oversee decisions on Thailand's communications satellites, internet servers, and its biggest mobile-phone network.

Even the deal-making Mr Thaksin, who frequently boasted of running the nation like a modern chief executive, found such a brazen sellout hard to justify. His son, through an offshore company with the almost comically apt name of Ample Rich, was fined for profiteering. What followed was remarkable: day after day of peaceful demonstrations as tens of thousands of Bangkok residents made the city's vast royal Saman Luang park their own, gridlocking the capital, thwarting business decision making, further sapping Thailand's sagging stock market, and provoking political turmoil.

The thin-skinned politician who had boasted of his law and order training at Sam Houston University was hard-pressed to justify all his excesses. When Mr Thaksin called a snap election in April, rival parties boycotted it and a political stalemate resulted. The court threw out the results and his caretaker government stumbled along with no parliament.

Street demonstrations grew rowdier, tens of thousands of voices demanded their arrogant leader get out of government. As Thailand's body politic slouched toward constitutional chaos, something had to give. In the end it was Thaksin Shinawatra.

The silver jubilee celebration of King Bhumibol Adulyadej brought street marches to a decorous halt in mid-June, and the Prime Minister managed to cling to power for few extra months.

But the war on separatist insurgents in the three Muslim-majority provinces in the south, which has claimed more than 1,400 lives since it reignited in January 2004, shows no sign of abating. In fact, on Saturday night, five synchronised blasts in Hat Yai resort killed four people, including a Canadian teacher and a Chinese tourist. This may have been the final straw.