While serving in the late 1990s as Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, he established the Thai Rak Thai political party. From 2001 until 2006, he held office as Thailand's twenty-third Prime Minister, but was accused of corruption and was ultimately ousted by a coup d'etat.
Before entering politics, he founded a successful Thai mobile phone company called Advanced Info Service and also worked as an officer with the Royal Thai Police.
After graduating from Thailand's Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School, he studied at Eastern Kentucky University and Sam Houston State University (both in the United States).
His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected President of Thailand in 2011 and held office until 2014. His marriage to Potjaman Na Pombejra lasted from 1980 until 2008 and produced one son and two daughters.
He succeeded Chuan Leekpai as Prime Minister of Thailand.