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Monday, Nov. 20, 2006

Thaksin poses dilemma for Thai leaders


Special to The Japan Times

Thaksin Shinawatra, in exile in London, has given notice that he is still alive and very much kicking. Indeed, the deposed leader is playing a devilishly devious and clever, but potentially deadly, game for himself and for Thailand.

He may be out of power and out of Thailand, but Thaksin is hardly ever off the front pages of Thai newspapers, which carry reports of regular telephone conversations between him and the new rulers, with the police colonel turned billionaire businessman and politician asking when he can return home. His legal adviser said Thaksin is willing to cooperate with the government and the coup-makers to enhance reconciliation.

The deposed prime minister sent his wife back and she had a meeting with Prem Tinsulanonda, the powerful former general and former prime minister who is reported to have the ear of the king. Then Thaksin flew to China, saying mysteriously that he was going to meet old friends.

It is clever because it conveys a message to Thais of how much he is concerned about his country. He may be thinking of a return to political power, not least because the new rulers have shown themselves to be ponderous and clumsy in grappling with the problems of their takeover.

Or he may simply be trying to establish a bargaining position to protect his wealth from taxes or confiscation.

His wish to return home is probably genuine. Thais, even those of Chinese origin, as Thaksin is, have a deep commitment to Thailand. Unlike say Chinese, Indians, or British, who have gotten used to living, making their fortunes and perhaps dying abroad, Thais cannot bear to stray too long from their homeland.

But it presents the new rulers with a delicate dilemma. They have been saying that Thaksin can come back when martial law is lifted. But if martial law is lifted and Thaksin does come back, then the rulers may rightly fear that his superior skills and resources will leave them looking foolish indeed and at the mercy of a countercoup.

On the other hand, if they leave martial law in place and thus Thaksin exiled abroad, they risk rising foreign opprobrium and loss of potential foreign investment, with the foreign concern no doubt fueled by Thaksin.

The answer, as always, is to escape between the horns of the dilemma. That means lifting martial law, permitting the resumption of normal politics, but putting the squeeze on Thaksin so that he stays away or comes back to face charges for his misdeeds when in power. A new election in which government fiat bans Thaksin from standing without proving any charges against him would risk a popular outburst of laughter at the military incompetence.

There is the heart of the real problem. The new regime has finally after weeks in power tried to show some claws by announcing that Thaksin's son and daughter will be charged income tax on the gain they made from selling shares just before the controversial big sale of the Shinawatra family business interests to Temasek of Singapore.

On Jan. 20, Panthongtae and Pinthongta Shinawatra bought 164.6 million shares each of Shin Corp. from British Virgin Islands-registered Ample Rich for one baht a share and sold them the next day for 49.25 baht each as part of the Temasek deal.

In early November the tax authorities sent a bill for tax on the 15.8 billion baht windfall gain to the son and daughter. About time too, was the response of tax experts. But here is one sample aspect of Thailand's underlying problem: The very same officials in April had decided that the Ample Rich deal was not taxable.

Officials were happy to sing a new tune to new rulers. But as the rulers deliberate on a new constitution for a new era, they should consider that there was not too much wrong with the old one except that members of the Thai elite were too self-seeking to follow its rules. The tax authorities blowing to the prevailing wind concerning Thaksin's children is a small example.

Under the constitution just scrapped, members of the senate were supposed to be wise men and women above the fray of party politics, but large numbers of them were attracted to support Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party.

The electoral commission was supposed to be independent, but it was seen to side with Thai Rak Thai in controversial cases, and in the end the Supreme Court sacked it.

The emerging problem seems to be that although Thaksin was accused of all sorts of malfeasance and misfeasance, proving it is difficult. Chief coup-maker Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin admitted as much when he told The Nation newspaper recently that investigators have failed to uncover solid evidence to support corruption charges against Thaksin. "It will be difficult to implicate him" in major corruption cases, Sonthi said.

The general had previously justified the bloodless September 19 coup by saying widespread corruption during Thaksin's five years in office had undermined democracy.

Surprisingly, the new rulers, now in power for almost two months, have not taken decisive action, for example by seizing assets of members of the former government, which would have shown that they meant business.

Of course, it may be easier to bring charges of lese majesty against Thaksin. The outside world might look on such accusations as quaint, but it is clear that Thaksin had used his money and power to subvert the old ways of doing things and had upset the old establishment. Even when he was in power, some That Web sites accused him of wanting to become Thailand's first president.

Sonthi's military coup against Thaksin was given the clear blessing of King Bhumipol Adulyadej. It would now be difficult for Thaksin to come back without the king losing face, which is why it is most surprising that the military rulers have not been more decisive.

Kevin Rafferty was editor in chief of Business Day, Bangkok.


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