Thursday, 12 February 2009

Thailand's Stubborn Fugitive

Far Eastern Economic Review

by Colum Murphy
Posted February 12, 2008

One day it’s Dubai, the next it’s Sydney, then Hong Kong. There has even been talk of a Cambodia visit. It seems there’s no stopping Thailand’s fugitive former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled corruption charges in August 2007 and faces a two-year prison sentence, as he circles the globe whipping up trouble from his self-imposed exile.

Mr. Thaksin has more on his mind than the odd game of golf or shopping spree. From afar, he keeps in close contact with his political allies, waiting for the day when he can return to Thailand and possibly reclaim power.

“He wants to come back to Thailand definitely, because it is his motherland,” said Phongthep Thepkanjana, a spokesperson for Mr. Thaksin in a recent exclusive interview with the REVIEW. The former prime minister, who was deposed in a bloodless coup in September 2006, is not going to give up, said Mr. Phongthep.

“I think ‘fight back’ is maybe too strong a word,” said Mr. Phongthep, who is also a former deputy leader of Mr. Thaksin’s now defunct party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), and a drafter of Thailand’s 1997 Constitution. “[Mr. Thaksin] is trying to ask for justice on his side. Yet he is not going to “simply to lie dead and wait for everything to happen to him.”

The country’s new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has shrugged off any threat posed by Mr. Thaksin. But the fact that the former prime minister refuses to go away is certainly bad news for the recently installed coalition government as it struggles to bring political stability to Thailand amidst the worst global economic downturn in decades.

Waiting in the wings are Mr. Thaksin’s supporters, the so-called Red Shirts. In late January, in a renewed show of strength and egged on by radio broadcasts by Mr. Thaksin from abroad, they demonstrated outside Government House and vowed to regroup and protest again if Mr. Abhisit and his government did not step down within 15 days.

Mr. Abhisit says he has no intention of doing so. Yet the Red Shirts are equally adamant in their demands and it seems inevitable that conflict will return to the streets of Bangkok before long.

Should this happen, Thailand would be thrown back into the political chaos it experienced in late 2008 when protests by the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy, or the Yellow Shirts, saw the capital’s two airports blockaded and Government House besieged. In addition to the billions of dollars of damage to the country’s economy, especially the tourism sector, the protests tarnished Thailand’s reputation in the international community and raised serious doubts as to the prospects of democracy in the kingdom.

According to Mr. Phongthep, nothing short of a fundamental change will bring meaningful peace to Thailand’s political landscape. “I think we have to bring back a system that is acceptable to most of the people. We have to bring back the system that is correct according to internationally accepted standards and we have to make the people in Thailand realize that we cannot just live in this country and do what we like without considering the ways that people should follow to live peacefully together,” he said.

For Mr. Phongthep, that means addressing the “unfair treatment” doled out on Mr. Thaksin and TRT. In addition, he believes the army should stay in the barracks where it belongs, and a government that works for everyone, not just the rich and privileged, should be established.

Mr. Phongthep blames the army for helping to bring down the last government, which was led by proxies of Mr. Thaskin. “Last year, the government couldn’t take action against people who committed very serious offenses because of a lack of cooperation from the bureaucracy, especially the military,” he said. He also accuses the army of putting pressure on one group of Mr. Thaksin’s allies, resulting in its defection to support the Democrat Party led by Mr. Abhisit.

Mr. Phongthep said reconciliation is needed. One possible route would be a pardon for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king enjoys enormous powers in Thailand, and on several occasions in the past has stepped in to avert political conflict.

Prime Minister Abhisit told the REVIEW he was open to the possibility of a reconciliation—but with some important caveats: “I think if Khun [Mr.] Thaksin would allow himself to be treated as any another Thai would—which is that he must be under the law—I think Thai society is a forgiving society but you have to accept your responsibilities first,” he said, adding that Mr. Thaksin should at least come back and respect the decision of the court. “I am very straightforward. I need to uphold the rule of law. And as I say, there are avenues to be explored in the future concerning reconciliation, but the need to uphold the system is more important. So it’s his choice.”

Whatever happens, Mr. Phongthep said Thailand must act to prevent a repeat of the tumultuous events of 2008, which he described as a year of anarchy where people were allowed to “do what they like” and “break the law” with impunity. The consequences of failure are stark, he warned. Without a solution, “People cannot live in this country peacefully and happily and the country cannot proceed and develop much according to her capability.”

No comments: