The former police officer founded the mobile phone operator Advanced Info Service and the IT and telecommunications conglomerate Shin Corporation in 1987, that made him one of the richest people in Thailand. He joined politics in 1994, founded the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) in 1998 and, after a landslide electoral victory, became prime minister in 2001.
Thaksin's government launched programs to reduce poverty, expand infrastructure, promote small and medium-sized enterprises, and universal healthcare coverage. Thaksin declared a "war on drugs" in which more than 2,500 people died and took a strong-arm approach against the separatist insurgency in the Muslim southern provinces. He was the first democratically elected prime minister of Thailand to serve a full term and was re-elected in 2005 by an overwhelming majority.
After selling shares of his corporation worth more than a billion dollars to foreign investors without paying taxes, considerable criticism resulted. A citizens' movement against Thaksin, called People's Alliance for Democracy or "yellow shirts", launched mass protests, accusing him of corruption, abuse of power and autocratic tendencies. Thaksin called snap elections that were boycotted by the opposition and invalidated by the Constitutional Court.
He was overthrown in a military coup on 19 September 2006. His party was outlawed and he was barred from political activity. Thaksin has since lived in self-imposed exile except for a brief visit to Thailand in 2008. He was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail for abuse of power. From abroad he has continued to influence Thai politics, through the People's Power Party that ruled in 2008, and its successor organisation Pheu Thai Party, as well as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship or "red shirt" movement. His younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra was the prime minister of Thailand from 2011 to 2014.
Thaksin's great-grandfather, Seng Saekhu, was an immigrant from Meizhou, Guangdong, China, who arrived in Siam in the 1860s and settled in Chiang Mai in 1908. His eldest son, Chiang Saekhu, was born in Chanthaburi in 1890 and married a Thai woman named Saeng Samana. Chiang's eldest son, Sak, adopted the Thai surname Shinawatra ("routinely appropriate action") in 1938 because of the country's anti-Chinese movement, and the rest of the family also adopted it.