Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Thaksin and the Generals

The Irrawaddy News

Why the fate of Thailand’s fugitive ex-premier has captured attention in Naypyidaw?

BURMA’s generals must be following with more than passing interest the drama of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s flight into exile.

It lies beyond the wildest imagination to believe they could ever join their erstwhile business crony in seeking refuge in the West. Nevertheless, in a world where the cat’s cradle of international treaties and alliances of convenience is constantly changing, the number of countries where they are assured of a welcome is possibly shrinking.

Thaksin and his family reportedly took months to work out where they could count on refuge if Thai law finally caught up with them. It’s perhaps no surprise that they chose England, where they have two expensive homes and large investments—and where Thaksin owns, at least for the present, a major football club, Manchester City.

But did China ever come into consideration? And if it did, why was exile there ruled out? Thaksin, after all, has distant Chinese ancestors, and he and his family obviously feel well at home there. These are questions and considerations that could occupy the generals’ attention if ever events in Burma caused them to seek exile abroad.

The likelihood of the generals ever being forced into exile lies at present in the “pigs might fly” realm of fantasy, of course—particularly as international governments appear to be gearing up to accept the results of the 2010 general election, which will enshrine for the foreseeable future the leading role of the military in governing Burma.

The nearer Burma gets to the critical 2010 date, the smaller becomes the political opposition’s chance to forestall the election. Any amendment of the constitution is now out of reach, and the doctored result of the referendum that endorsed the document has now been chiseled in stone—not only in Burma, but also in the wider world. Even the media of the free world repeats without comment the official fiction that the referendum was approved by more than 90 percent of the population.

In these circumstances, Burma’s military leaders can surely relax and feel secure from the threat of ever having to flee. Or can they?

Consider the case of Thaksin Shinawatra. Who in their right mind only three years ago, when Thaksin won a landslide election victory and consolidated an apparently invincible power base, would have predicted that his image would slide off the society pages and onto a “Wanted” poster displayed at Thailand’s border entry points?

This is the man who graduated with a PhD in “criminal justice” at a US university, enabling him with impunity to place the title “Dr” before his name in honors-conscious Britain.

The nature of his studies in the US gave him the background for a career in Thailand’s police department, which also provided him with the chance to lay the basis of his business fortune when he secured a contract to supply the department with computer software.

Five years later, he established a software marketing company, which spawned various lucrative ventures but also a spider’s web of shady dealings that finally enmeshed Thaksin and his family.

By now, he was eyeing a career in politics and after joining the government of the time he was appointed foreign minister in 1994 and deputy prime minister the following year. In 1998, he founded his own party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), leading it to a crushing victory in a general election in January 2001.

Suspicions that business interests were conflicting with Thaksin’s public duties surfaced early on in his administration, however, and he narrowly survived charges of failing to fully disclose his assets during his time as deputy prime minister.

Thaksin’s rapid rise on parallel paths to the pinnacle of political power and to the status of Thailand’s wealthiest individual fuelled growing concern and opposition, particularly among the country’s influential middle-class intellectuals and the old conservative, royalist guard.

A snap election called by Thaksin in April 2006 returned him and his TRT party to power with a massive mandate but failed to stem the demonstrations, and in September 2006 he was overthrown by a military coup while abroad.

He returned to Thailand in February 2008, following the December 2007 election that brought current prime minister and Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej to power.

As legal investigations of Thaksin’s business dealings intensified and after his wife was sentenced to three years imprisonment for withholding tax on share dealings, the couple fled last month to Beijing and then Britain.

If Thaksin is extradited by Britain or returns home voluntarily, he faces a raft of corruption and malfeasance charges, including one involving approval by his government of a loan to Burma to buy telecommunications technology from a Shinawatra family-owned enterprise—another reason why the Thaksin drama commands great interest in Naypyidaw.

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