Ex-Thai leader seeks to do it his way

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By Amy Kazmin and Sarah Ross

Published: July 29 2007 19:31 | Last updated: July 29 2007 19:31

For six years, Thaksin Shinawatra, the charismatic billionaire telecoms tycoon, ruled Thailand and revelled in the adulation of its rural poor and working classes. In the meantime, his family-controlled telecommunications firm, Shin Corp, soared in market value.

Today, Mr Thaksin is a political exile in London and owner of an English Premier League football team, Manchester City, whose fans find it difficult to pronounce his family name, Shinawatra, and have thus taken to calling him “Frank”, as in Sinatra.

Mr Thaksin describes his fall as like a descent to “hell [from] heaven in one day”.

It was perhaps Mr Thaksin’s break with Thai political traditions – particularly those that suggest politicians’ popularity should in no way overshadow other institutions, such as the monarchy – that led to his government’s ousting.

In a country where those close to the royal palace usually wield considerable political clout, Mr Thaksin paid little respect to the traditional powerbrokers, his close allies say.

When Bangkok’s middle classes were in uproar last year over his family’s $1.9bn tax-free sale of Shin Corp, royalist military leaders seized the chance to move against him. The coup, last September, many Thais believe had the tacit endorsement of General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army commander and prime minister, who is now the top adviser to King Bhumibol Adulayadej.

Yet Mr Thaksin is unrepentant. “I may have been negligent,” he told the FT. “I forgot to manage power. I managed the country to gain popularity, so [my] power comes from popularity. That is 100 per cent . . . according to the theory of democracy.” He said the furore over his family’s sale of Shin Corp was just an excuse for the military to act. “Even if we hadn’t sold Shin Corp they would have ousted me anyway because of my popularity. They knew if we had another election there would have been another landslide [for his Thai Rak Thai party].”

Ten months after the coup, Mr Thaksin remains a potent force. While the military-installed government plods towards its goal of enshrining a new charter and transferring power to an elected government, the spectre that Mr Thaksin will re-establish a political foothold looms large.

The former leader’s every move – including his launch of a Chinese-language book about the coup and a new website countering government allegations against him – is watched closely. Sensitivities have heightened further since anti-coup protesters clashed with police outside Gen Prem’s house earlier this month. Nine protest leaders, including several former Thai Rak Thai leaders, are now in jail.

With his family’s $1.9bn from the sale of Shin Corp frozen as part of what Mr Thaksin calls as “politically motivated” process, the shape of a post-election government is clearly of strong interest and relevance to him.

Although a post-coup tribunal has dissolved Thai Rak Thai and banned many former leaders from politics for five years, Mr Thaksin says he will provide “ideological support” to a successor party.

Despite his absence, he believes he retains support among Thai voters. “They love me,” he said. “They want to do something for me, because I have done a lot for them.”

Many Thais suspect Mr Thaksin of retaining ample assets overseas. But he is pleading poverty. “I can’t even support myself,” he claims. “I turned poor very quickly. I have to rely on many rich friends worldwide.”

For now, Mr Thaksin says, his focus is on Manchester City, an investment that appealed to him “because it doesn’t need much more money from the family.”

In moves sure to keep him in the Thai public spotlight, he has already invited two Thai football players – a striker and a goalkeeper – to try out for the team.

Meanwhile, Mr Thaksin is sueing Thai anti-graft investigators for defamation and wrongful seizure of the money from the Shin Corp sale, a deal for which prosecutors have yet to file actual charges of wrongdoing.

“That is the wealth that the whole family had gone through hardship [for], working for it for over 20 years,” Mr Thaksin says. “I own[ed] it before I enter[ed] politics. How can you freeze that asset? If you [accused] me of [being] corrupt, it means I have to take the money from government coffers. But there is nothing there at all.”

The Daily Telegraph - Home

From correspondents in London

July 30, 2007 10:30am

THAILAND’S former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra says he has no plans to return to politics in his native country.

The former telecom tycoon said in an interview published in today’s Financial Times that he was more interested in his newly acquired Premiership football team, Manchester City.

He insisted he was “relieved” that he did not have to worry about “what should I do for my people, for my country”.

Military leaders ousted Mr Thaksin last September, accusing him of corruption and abuse of power, and he has been living in London since.

Anti-graft investigators have already frozen at least $US1.52 billion ($1.79bn) of assets belonging to him and his family.

Mr Thaksin’s family earned $US1.9bn ($A2.24bn) when they sold his Shin Corp telecom giant to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, and the ex-prime minister denied any impropriety in the deal.

“All the allegations related to the Shin Corp sale are politically motivated … The sale of my family asset clearly happened in a professional way. In new modern capitalism, merger and acquisition is normal.”

Mr Thaksin said he was still debating whether or not to return to Thailand to face charges of corruption.

He said he had concerns about his personal safety, and feared that his return might spark confrontations between his followers and supporters of the military regime.

He described the draft for a new constitution unveiled by the military earlier this month as “step back” for democracy in the country.

The proposed constitution was “fruit from a poisoned tree” and an act of “political revenge” against him.

Thai voters should reject it and work to restore Thailand’s 1997 constitution, he said.

The generals tossed out Thailand’s 1997 constitution, widely hailed as the most democratic the kingdom had ever known, shortly after they seized power.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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