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Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012

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Top table: Tom Plate (right) dines with Thaksin Shinawatra at the former Thai prime minister's Dubai residence. COURTESY OF THE DUBAI HOUSEHOLD OF THAKSIN SHINAWATRA

Conversations with Thaksin, Thailand's prime suspect


THE SHOCKING COUP: "The situation is no good."

DUBAI — "It's just a matter of time," a top minister had told him. "We only have a few weeks left before they act." Another had told him: "Our days are numbered."

By Sept. 17, 2006, in New York, even Thaksin, waiting to deliver a speech on behalf of his nation at the United Nations General Assembly, was getting very worried. "I think you're right," he told a colleague. "I should go back. The situation is no good."

But by then it was too late.

Back in Bangkok, on that hot tropical morning of Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006, people could sense something unusual in the air.

Around 8 p.m. that night, the coup was moving forward at full force.

Although modern Thailand has suffered through many coups, this was the first one in years that actually put tanks into the streets. By 10 p.m. military forces had completely surrounded Government House.

With dawn, the military locked down positions and conducted checkpoint searches of every vehicle passing the pivotal Rajdamnoen intersection.

The next day, at 9:16 a.m., the military junta in a public announcement Thaksin for the coup. The official statement said the ousted leader had caused "an unprecedented rift in society, widespread corruption, nepotism, and interfered with independent agencies, crippling them so they cannot function. If [Thaksin's regime] is allowed to govern it will hurt the country. They have also repeatedly insulted the King. Thus the council needed to seize power."

And that was how they sought to end his tenure as prime minister of Thailand — with tanks. In fact there was no serious violence. Many Thais stayed indoors, sensing the unfolding coup because TV stations had stopped regular programing and were playing patriotic music.

No shots were fired. No one was killed. It was a quiet coup.

And a quiet ending ... except for the political career of the prime minister, terminated as noisily as a tank rolling through a city street.

Later that afternoon, tension throughout Thailand visibly started to ease. Clearly, Thaksin was finished.

Or so the coup leaders thought.

THE CONTROVERSY AND THE THAKSIN: "My family, we did have good intentions."

Thaksin is saying: "I was so angry then ... so full of anger. And in my speed of reaching my anger and in showing it to everyone ... I was too fast with all that." He says this with a kind of resigned sadness.

"That is my bad quality. My good part is being very constructive and creative in my thinking. But when I cannot stand the pressure, I'm too easily angered."

It is clear that this is the part of his psyche he has come to regret.

Me asking: "OK. Now they say that Thai courts have charged you, Thaksin, in absentia, after you left, for your role in fomenting the street protests. Have you actually been charged by Thai courts?"

"Never. I never have been charged. I was only charged because of the land use."

"The land use in 2003. Where you used your wife's name?"

"Yes. My wife went for a public auction, and then she won. The auction was held for distressed assets hurt during the financial meltdown."

"OK."

"So it's open for all, and then they said, 'Oh, she's the wife of the prime minister, she must be corrupt.' And then the court declared the deal void and nullified it. They returned the money to my wife, but they didn't release me from the conviction."

"You were charged and convicted in absentia. What was technically the charge?"

(By the way, in general the world media has reported that the charges were for corruption. This is not true.)

"Well, they just said that I violated the law that no Cabinet members should engage in obtaining any government contract. The intention of the law is to prohibit you from having gained unfairly any kind of concession from the government. But ... this [alleged offense] was at a public auction for the displaced asset, which does not belong to the government."

"And your wife purchased in her name?"

In fact, there was no duplicity. She didn't hide anything. She plunked down a check, in effect, for $24 million. That's not easy to keep a secret. But that kind of money might make people envious.

Thaksin continuing: "No. If she wanted to hide, she could have used a proxy name or the company names."

"But she didn't, which she might have if she had thought she had something to hide. So it's a technical violation, at worst."

He nods.

"Right. Now ... some have written that you have been convicted of additional corruption charges since going into exile."

"Never. They allege, yes. Allege."

"But the only conviction here is the land deal."

"Only one. Only one. One and only."

It's hard to claim Thaksin as the world's greatest political felon if the land deal alone amounts to the entire closed case against him. As a point of fact, he has never been listed on any of the international arrest lists used by Interpol and so forth.

To be sure... there were many other official accusations, and it is hard to believe that they all came from partisan parties. So it's a bit of a mess, isn't it?

"OK. But let me ask you this...: say for instance, the Shin Corporation deal involving Singapore, would you have done that differently today if you knew all the mess it was going to create? I mean, are there one or two you could mention that you would change?"

The 2006 Shin deal basically involved the sale of his enormous holdings in Thai telecommunications to Singapore telecommunications. It was a huge transaction and struck many Thais the wrong way; it was almost like selling your national-security communications to the highest foreign bidder. There was also a twist in the deal that critics found typical of a Thaksin transaction: The sale was structured to evade normal Thai taxes.

Legal as the financial maneuver was, it left a bad taste in many mouths, especially as the alleged 'tax evader' was, in effect, the prime minister — who was filthy rich.

Thaksin listens intently and answers this way: "My family, we did have good intentions. My children, they came to me, they said, 'You know, Dad, you're being attacked for conflict of interest. If we were to sell the company, and you had no role in the business, you probably will not be attacked anymore, and so then it might be a good idea for us to sell,' so they agreed to sell. So, because my enemies want to get me, the good intention not to be in the position of conflict of interest comes under attack. But if I knew this was going to be this big mess, I would have advised them, 'Hey, you keep it, and you keep this one for me. I don't want to deal with it.' But since it's already done, I will never regret it. It's a done deal."

As sincere as this explanation may be, it still might be viewed as unbecoming of a man with ambitions to put Thailand on the map and thus become a world statesman. The net effect of the Shin deal, for starters, was to make Thaksin at times as much a prime suspect as a prime minister.

Perhaps it is true that the origin of the unfairness, if it was that, derived from continuing behavior on his part that his enemies could almost invariably paint as suspect. Even so, in effect, he continued to behave as a businessman even while he was prime minister. To his critics and many Thais (and outside observers), this was carrying the 'CEO model' of prime minister too far.

And so I wonder what he would say to this now: "Is it business or politics that is more cutthroat? Or about the same? Or impossible to say?"

His response: "Business has explicit rules of the game which every party respects but in politics, especially in pseudo-democratic countries, the rules have not been respected and the referees have never been fair."

RICH MAN, POOR MAN: "My passion is to solve the problems of the people."

"As I understand your view, you believe that poverty can be greatly reduced, if not eliminated. Now that's quite a big idea. You really do believe that?"

He nods.

"You know, my grandpa used to say, 'The poor will always be with us.' But you're an optimist on that. Why?"

Thaksin saying: "Consider the poor person who has been born in the rural countryside. Their parents are poor. But it's not necessary that their children should be poor in the next generation. If they have been brought up better than their parents, or if their parents can do better in bringing them up than their grandparents, they will be better off. So much is an outcome of good nutrition, good education, and good opportunities."

"It takes money, though." I generally like to respond to Thaksin with understatement.

He nods: "Yes. Takes money, but they don't need a lot of money. You don't need to give each family $1 million so they will be rich. No. And we don't want them to be rich easily. But we want them to be able to breathe and flourish, but instead [in Thailand] they are drowning. If we can just get to them before they drown, take their head up so they can breathe, then they will find a way to get to the shore. Suddenly they will have energy, and so they will try to use their own energy. They don't want to drown anymore, because they know that being drowned is an experience of torture. So after they can breathe, they will never want to drown again."

This breathless outburst reveals Thaksin's self-confidence at its most basic.

He shifts in his armchair in the living room of his own in leafy suburban Dubai and continues: "By helping them, it's not that you are just giving everything to them. It's like they are sick persons. They are not strong, but even so, life asks them to carry a lot of weight. But at the same time the government is bigger. It can carry some weight for them for a while, and after they are strong, you put their true weight back on them."

This here is the essential Thaksin thinking about the poor: incremental efforts will go a long way. The government, for example, should provide computer tablets for every child that cannot afford one.

Thaksin saying: "You have to strengthen Thailand's grass-roots sectors. You have to help the rural areas to prosper. If you lift something, one sector up, the other will go up together, not just one part of the economy; but you have to lift from the bottom. If you lift the bottom up, the top goes up as well. This approach does not mean that you neglect the cities, but if the rural economy is better, then everything, even the tourism, will improve even more. If we were to compare the whole organization of society to a human body, then when parts of it are dying, how can the whole body be strong? We have to re-invigorate each sector ... that is, try to help the people from the countryside."

Me: "How do you understand the poor?"

"Because I grew up in the rural countryside, I know. I used to talk to them [the poor] when I was a young boy. My father hired the garden workers, and they came, they worked, they dug the soil, and then at lunchtime they cooked their own meal, and then they did the work. I watched the way they ate. They didn't go to market — they would catch the frog in the fields and cook it. They didn't have anything; they just had rice. How can they live?"

If he's faking the passion, it's a very good con job.

"I understand. I saw this. When I came to power, because I climbed up via my business success, I know that, OK, we should do something, we should help them.

"Maybe, because I still have fond memories of living in a rural area, and I remember that when I went to school, I rode on the back of the motorcycle of my father and watched the rice fields along the way — I can still remember that scene. So I have a very fond memory, and maybe that's one reason I do feel sympathy for the rural people when they are so poor and they have so little chances. How can we give them opportunities, give them some hopes? That is my passion."

"This is serious? You are serious here?"

"Yes. My passion is not to be prime minister. My passion is to solve the problems of the people. Being prime minister was simply the vehicle by which I could try to do it."

A SETUP FOR CORRUPTION: "That's the way it is done in Thailand."

Today, Thaksin, by his own admission, senses that to some extent at least, the problem Thaksin had in running the country was Thaksin. His natural impatience, which in general is a plus in the private business arena, became a dysfunctional liability when trying to build a consensus for new policy directions.

Me starting this turn in our conversation this way: "Now, I've only known you for a short period of time, and I can see you're a strong guy. So I wonder whether you had anyone on your staff when you were prime minister who was not afraid to come up to you and say, 'Prime Minister, if you don't do X or Y or Z, you're going to have a serious problem.' My theory is you didn't have anybody to do that for you."

He lets out a faint sigh and nods: "That is the weak point in Thai culture. Thais dare not speak negative to the boss. Any negative thing or any kind of negative comment that can annoy the boss ... well, they try not to."

"Right."

"But I did have someone who would always say what needed to be said, but she was not with me all the time. That was my wife."

I laugh and understand. I have one of those, too. Another needed reform, Thaksin believes, involves government compensation.

"You know how much I was paid during my prime ministership? Three thousand U.S. dollars a month. And no pension. You know how much I paid for my security people? They assign a security team for me, but they are government officials, so I need to pay them more. The total came to about $15,000 a month — just for my security team."

"That's out of your own pocket?"

"And I got paid $3,000 a month as P.M.!"

"The only person who could be prime minister is someone who is either very independently wealthy, or is getting an income stream from some sources that are — how to say it? — not completely evident. That's a formula for bad government."

"That's the way it is done in Thailand. That's the way."

"That's wrong. If you don't pay people properly, somebody's going to pay them what they require ... I say that's ridiculous. There's no way you could live on that ... and besides you came into office rich. But anybody who comes in who's not rich — somebody's going to pay that person."

"They have to survive to keep the social status of the government position. If they don't have enough income, they have to find it somewhere, otherwise how can they survive? We have to accept the fact."

"It's a setup for corruption."

"Right. You are forcing them to go corrupt."

"That will have to be changed?"

"Right."

RECONCILED TO RETURN: "My body's in Dubai, my soul is there ... in Thailand."

Thaksin is at the left side of the living-room couch, poised on the edge. Usually he is sitting back.

"So I think that the only thing we can do with this is to ask for reconciliation. They're afraid of me, they don't trust that I'm not out for revenge. But I'm not out for revenge."

Me asking: "If — or when — you go back, would you promise your people in the military, and in the PAD opposition and so on, amnesty? Forgiveness?"

"Yes, right."

"No witch hunt?"

"No witch hunt. I think forgiveness is the key. I mean it. I want to forgive and make the whole country forgive each other. Because, if you don't forgive, you cannot reconcile your country. You cannot be one nation anymore."

Me pushing: "But some people say it would be better for Thailand overall if Thaksin says, 'I'm never going back.' But you've never said that, because in fact, you want to go back."

"I definitely want to return."

"Right, right. So it's clear in your mind that if you go back, it'll be better for Thailand than if you don't go back?"

"Definitely. If I were to go back successfully, you know, the people who are fighting against me now will not be fighting. And if I go back, and if I do not take revenge, and if I forgive everyone, those who don't like me will start to feel more at ease."

"But if you do go back, do you have to be prime minister? Could you go back as minister-mentor, like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore used to be for years?"

"I don't have to be anything."

"Could you go back as Sonia Gandhi? The power behind the throne of India?"

He sighs, and looks toward the window: "Some people may not be comfortable if I go back and have political power, directly or indirectly. But I can even propose that I can be in any position; I do not need to involve myself in politics ... I just want to prove that I don't mind not being anything, but I want to prove that I am beneficial to my country and my people."

(Since the national election last year that catapulted his sister Yingluck into the Prime Minister's job, the news media has reported Thaksin as all but the nonstop, behind-the-scenes political puppet master.)

"But why?"

"Because I really worry about the poor. And because I feel gratitude to my supporters. Most of them are poor. And I feel sorry for some businessmen who are suffering now because of the poor economy on the domestic side. I owe them. They are fighting for justice, fighting for me ... fighting for democracy. I still have to put all my energies that I have left to work for them, to pay back my gratitude."

He continues: "I'm confident that the situation really cannot go on like this any longer. Reconciliation is inevitable. And if reconciliation is inevitable, it means that I'm going back. When I go back, definitely, I should be appointed something to be beneficial for the country and the people."

"And so what you're saying is that you would be happy — let me see if I got this right — you would be happier to go back to Thailand, even if not as prime minister, but something lesser, than to stay here in Dubai for another 10 years? It's pleasant here, but part of your soul is in agony here."

"Right, right. My body's here in Dubai, my soul is there ... in Thailand."

SISTER ACT: "I'm confident of a happy ending."

Thaksin Shinawatra today is among the first to admit that the ideal politician to advance Thaksinism may not be Thaksin.

That ideal politician may well be his youngest sister Yingluck, the country's first woman prime minister. There's more than enough Thaksin DNA in her, he says, to get the job done. At one point, he described her as his 'clone'. Well, at least he didn't use the word 'puppet'.

Thaksin says: "She has performed better than anyone expected, including myself and all the family members. The party was surprised, too."

Today, little sister looks in many ways more attractive than big brother, who is of course watching over her, as always, with both paternal pride and concern. In hindsight, he says, his sister's people skills, personal charm and organizational instincts convert almost seamlessly into political assets.

She had extensive experience heading several Thaksin companies within the Shin empire, most notably as president of AIS (once one of the largest cellphone companies). But he feels her roots growing up in rural Thailand have not been washed away by her success. "She understands all classes of people," he claims, describing her as a "softer and more modern Thatcher".

Thaksin is her biggest cheerleader, of course: "She has no political baggage and she is a lady. She can talk to everybody easier than a man with a long political history. I may not be in as good a position to trigger reconciliation as her."

But what about an assassination threat? The fact of gender didn't insulate Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto from that tragic end. But Thaksin thinks that in Thailand's culture her style and her gender do render her all but immune. He adds: "Yingluck is very brave."

"All I can tell you is I'm very optimistic. I'm confident of a happy ending. Anyway I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Four times they tried to kill me. I'm still alive. And I have unfinished work."

Yingluck's amazing splash onto the Thai national political scene has roots in Thai Asian family culture. She is helping burnish her family's legacy and image. This is something many Thais will respect. They know she could have stayed behind the Thai political curtain, letting someone else take the heat out front. Whatever happens, Yingluck would appear to be a game lady with a lot of energy.

Given Thailand's rough history of coups and assassination attempts, she'd better be.

Excerpted from the new book, "Conversations with Thaksin; From Exile to Deliverance," part of Tom Plate's "Giants of Asia" series. Marshall Cavendish International, Singapore, 2011. © 2011, Thomas Gordon Plate


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