Junta foils Thaksin’s poll hopes

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Peter Alford, Tokyo correspondent | December 22, 2007

FIFTEEN months after Thailand’s generals overthrew prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the election to reinstate democratic process is being undermined by military manipulation to prevent his return, says the international civil liberties watchdog Human Rights Watch.

HRW has accused the interim military regime, Council for National Security, of systematically harassing Samak Sundarajev’s People’s Power party and Thailand’s Electoral Commission of failing to respond to clear evidence of military interference.

This called into question the possibility of Thailand having a free and fair general election tomorrow, Elaine Pearson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, said yesterday.

Recent polling suggests People’s Power could win more than 150 of the 480 House of Representatives seats, possibly putting Mr Samak – a ruggedly old-style right-winger – in the box seat to form a coalition government.

However, the veteran national politician faces a corrupt procurement investigation revived from his time as Bangkok governor in the late 1990s that could prevent him becoming prime minister.

Although he denies it, Mr Samak’s party is widely viewed as a reconstruction of Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai, which was disbanded in May by order of a military government-appointed tribunal.

The party’s 111 executive members, including Mr Thaksin, the billionaire telecommunications tycoon, were banned from politics for five years.

“The courts dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party for manipulating the electoral process, but now the junta is doing the same thing,” Ms Pearson said. “Military leaders are manoeuvring to influence voting results and to prevent Thaksin’s allies from returning to government.”

HRW says martial law, imposed after the coup in September last year, is still in force in 31 provinces, mostly in the north and northeast, which was Thai Rak Thai’s electoral base. Martial law allowed the army to suppress political activity, censor news coverage and detain people without charge.

“Although Thaksin and his allies (in government) showed contempt for human rights and democracy, it is up to the Thai voters, not the military, to decide who should govern the country,” Ms Pearson said.

Of the seven parties contesting the election, only the Democrats, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, and People’s Power are contesting every constituency and have a chance to form the inevitable coalition government.

People’s Power was pulled together with remarkable speed after Thai Rak Thai was disbanded, but Mr Samak again denied this week the party had funding from Mr Thaksin or was his proxy vehicle.

Although the party’s secretary-general, former Thai Rak Thai official Surapong Suebwonglee, said this week Mr Thaksin was needed to return from England as an adviser to People’s Power in government, Mr Samak denied any such contact.

“I have no telephone for Mr Thaksin … He must call me, I do not phone him.”

Mr Samak said his only interest was in the ousted leader being able to return home in safety to confront allegations of corruption and abuse of office laid against him after the coup.

“He’s not a bad guy … he’s a good guy whose has done good for the country for five years and for the past 15 months (under the military regime) the country almost collapsed.

“So they say that Mr Thaksin is corrupt but they have not brought the case to court yet – let it be decided before the court.”

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