Millions of people across the globe have cut the tethers to their offices, working remotely from home, airport lounges or just about anywhere they can get an Internet connection. However, the political party governing Thailand has taken telecommuting into an altogether different realm.
For the past year and a half, by the party’s own admission, the most important political decisions in this country of 65 million people have been made from abroad, by a former leader who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to escape corruption charges.
The country’s most famous fugitive, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, circles the globe in his private jet, chatting with ministers over his dozen cellphones, texting over various social media platforms and reading government documents e-mailed to him from civil servants, party officials say.
It might be described as rule by Skype. Or governance by instant messenger, a way for Thaksin to help run the country without having to face the warrant for his arrest in a case that many believe is politically motivated.
His (remote control) return to power, even if somewhat limited by distance, is a remarkable turnaround for the brash telecommunications billionaire who was deposed in a military coup in 2006, the catalyst for several years of brinkmanship between critics and supporters that led to four changes of government and violent street protests that left nearly 100 people dead.
Officially, his sister, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is the leader (he nominated her for the job in 2011). However, from his homes in Dubai and London, from the gold mines he owns in Africa and during regular visits to nearby Asian countries, Thaksin, 63, has harnessed the Internet and mobile technology to create one of the most unusual ways of governing a country.
“We can contact him at all hours,” said Thai Minister of the Interior Charupong Ruangsuwan, who is also secretary-general of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party. “The world has changed. It’s a boundless world. It’s not like 100 years ago when you had to use a telegraph.”
To illustrate the point during an interview, Charupong took out his iPhone and scrolled through a list of phone numbers for Thaksin. (Thaksin gives different numbers to different people, often depending on seniority, party officials say).
“If we’ve got any problem, we give him a call,” Charupong said.
Thaksin himself declined to talk by phone, or Skype, for this article.
The day-to-day governance of the country is carried out by Yingluck, who is genial, photogenic and 18 years younger than Thaksin. She cuts the ribbons and makes the speeches.
Yingluck, 45, has on occasion sought to play down her brother’s role. Soon after taking office, when Thaksin joined a weekly Cabinet meeting via Skype, reporters asked who was really the head of the government. Yingluck insisted that she was in charge and said Thaksin had joined the discussion to offer “moral support.” She has since consistently said she is in charge.
However, if there is one thing that allies and enemies of Thaksin agree on, it is that he is the one making the big decisions.
“He’s the one who formulates the Pheu Thai policies,” said Noppadon Pattama, a senior official in Thaksin’s party who also serves as his personal lawyer. “Almost all the policies put forward during the last election came from him.”