Richard Lloyd Parry in Dubai
November 8, 2009
(Posted by CAAI News Media)
The ousted prime minister of Thailand and opposition leader-in-exile Thaksin Shinawatra has called for reform of the country’s revered monarchy and spoken of his expectations of a “shining” new age after the passing of the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Mr Thaksin’s remarks, which touch on some of the most sensitive areas of Thai politics, come as he prepares to return to South East Asia from his exile in the Middle East in a move that has provoked political turmoil in Bangkok. Tomorrow he is due to arrive in Cambodia on a visit that has caused an intense diplomatic row between the two countries.
The appointment of Mr Thaksin as an “adviser” by the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has angered and humiliated the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and raised suspicions that Mr Thaksin is plotting a political comeback from a base in Cambodia. The two countries have withdrawn their ambassadors and there are fears of military skirmishes along their disputed border after deadly clashes last year.
Mr Thaksin’s remarks about the Thai monarchy are further evidence that, three years after being forced out as the democratically elected Prime Minister in a military coup, he is still contemplating a political future in Thailand. They also suggest that he is placing his hopes in the man likely to succeed to the country’s throne: the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.
“He’s not the king yet. He may not be shining [now],” Mr Thaksin told The Times in an interview from Dubai. “But after he becomes the King I’m confident he can be shining . . . it’s not his time yet. But when the time comes I think he will be able to perform.”
Mr Thaksin was the most popular — and the most divisive — prime minister in his country’s history. Since the coup in 2006 Thailand has been torn by frequently violent demonstrations by his “Red Shirt” supporters and the “Yellow Shirts” who oppose him in the name of King Bhumibol. The King has not explicitly endorsed their movement but many of Mr Thaksin’s supporters believe that the coup could not have happened without his consent.
Mr Thaksin is careful to emphasise his deep loyalty to King Bhumibol, but is deeply critical of the “palace circle”, principally members of the Privy Council, whom he blames for plotting his overthrow with the help of senior generals.
King Bhumibol quickly accepted the coup and has ignored a petition signed by 3.5 million Thais to pardon Mr Thaksin. But the King has been in hospital for seven weeks with apparent pneumonia and Thais are looking ahead with trepidation to life after King Bhumibol.
Prince Vajiralongkorn is the king’s designated heir but he is unpopular with many Thais because of rumours about his private life. Supporters of Mr Thaksin have told The Times that by endorsing the Crown Prince and lending some of his own popularity, he hopes to gain the support of a future monarch who will not interfere with his political ambitions.
“The Crown Prince may not be as popular as His Majesty the King,” Mr Thaksin said. “However, he will have less problem because the palace circle will be smaller . . . He had education abroad and he’s young. I think he understands the modern world.
“When the world is changing every organisation must adapt to the changing environment. When you are born as a baby your heart is very small [but] you cannot keep the baby heart in an adult body . . . Every institution, not just the royal institution, is the same — it must be adapted.”
Mr Thaksin, who was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail for corruption, insisted that he did not intend to settle in Cambodia. But even his temporary presence there, close to Thailand’s northeast where he enjoys his most passionate support, is deeply discomforting for Mr Abhisit — especially after Mr Thaksin’s threat earlier this year to lead a march on Bangkok.
Mr Thaksin’s supporters are still hopeful that King Bhumibol may use his 82nd birthday next month to issue some kind of pardon or amnesty that would allow him to return to Thailand as early as January. “I think His Majesty maybe now feels unwell because he’s been in and out of hospital,” Mr Thaksin said. “I hope after His Majesty gets stronger he will find a way for the country to be back to unity. We cannot let the country go on like this. We will be getting worse and worse and the division will be getting deeper and stronger.”