Thai high court to rule on whether to seize more than $2bn in suspect assets
FUGITIVE former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra again finds himself in the spotlight this week, occupying a familiar place at the centre of political conflict in his homeland.
In Bangkok today, Thailand’s supreme court is set to rule on whether to seize all or part of the 76.6 billion baht (US$2.3 billion) of Thaksin’s assets that have been frozen based on allegations that the former prime minister exploited his position to boost his wealth. While tensions are high in the run-up to the much-anticipated verdict, observers say that it may carry more symbolic than practical weight for both Thailand and Cambodia.
Although Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 coup and left Thailand indefinitely in 2008 to avoid a jail term for corruption, he has made sure to keep his name in the headlines and on the tongues of his enemies in the current Thai leadership.
He frequently speaks from Dubai to supporters in Thailand via video conference, and drew his home government’s ire in recent months by staging several brazen visits to Cambodia, where officials denied Thai requests for his extradition.
For current Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his allies, the assets case represents “the latest stage in a long, long effort” to eliminate Thaksin and redress the perceived ills of his rule “by any means possible”, said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. But despite the high-profile nature of the case, Montesano noted that “in terms of material political circumstances … this may make very little difference”.
How much money is left at the disposal of Thaksin, who amassed a fortune in telecommunications prior to becoming prime minister, is an open question. Whatever the outcome of today’s decision, however, he has given no indication that he will be unable to fund his travels without the aid of the frozen assets.
His allies the Red Shirts, meanwhile, are determined to show that their movement is about more than Thaksin’s patronage and will not be defined by his case, said Puangthong Pawakapan, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“They are trying to say that their movement is not sponsored by Thaksin, [that] they’re sort of an independent movement that believes in democracy,” Puangthong said. Massive Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok that were originally scheduled for shortly after the verdict have now been pushed back to mid-March, in what is perhaps an effort by the Red Shirts to dispel the notion that Thaksin is their signature issue, Puangthong added.
The Abhisit government and the conservative Yellow Shirts, by contrast, hope to use the focus on Thaksin’s assets to demonstrate that the Red Shirts are an unprincipled movement that is “just about money”, Puangthong said.
Hearkening back to Red Shirt protests that turned violent in April, the government also hopes to use current tensions to paint the Red Shirts “as people who are prone to violence, who are real dangers to Thai society”, Montesano said. At this point, however, the Red Shirts may be looking to the political process rather than to a decisive protest in order to take power.
“It’s all about the election,” Montesano said. “Every passing month that the Abhisit government demonstrates no success in reshaping the political landscape, red strategies become more and more realistic.”
Effects across the border
Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said he would be unsurprised to see Thaksin return to Cambodia in the weeks to come, despite the fact that the former leader has had little trouble communicating with his supporters no matter where he travels.
As Thaksin has kept himself in the spotlight with his Cambodia trips, the closest he has come to Thailand since going into exile, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used the international media coverage to his advantage, lobbing criticism at the Abhisit administration as he fêtes their bete noire.
In stirring antagonism with Thailand, Hun Sen has “hit on the right spot” for many Cambodians, funnelling nationalist anger towards a traditional enemy, Hang Chhaya said.
“Many people like this kind of aggression, this kind of verbal abuse,” he said.
Rancour between Abhisit and Hun Sen has been exacerbated by the appointment of Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya, who found himself at the centre of controversy last year when a tape emerged of him apparently referring to Hun Sen as a “gangster”. Hun Sen has repeatedly argued, however, that the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia originates from Thailand’s claims to the area surrounding Preah Vihear temple and its attempts to challenge the site’s UNESCO listing.
A Red Shirt-aligned government in Bangkok is sure to be “at least somewhat more conciliatory” towards Cambodia, Montesano said, though he and others agreed that significant concessions regarding Preah Vihear are unlikely in any circumstance, regardless of Hun Sen’s support for Thaksin over the past few months.
“It just doesn’t really achieve anything,” Hang Chhaya said. “If we can find a much more professional way or constructive way of communicating a process whereby both sides can respect one another ... it’s not such a bad thing.”