Thai generals in fear after tycoon’s victory

Times Online

December 30, 2007

MANCHESTER CITY’S chairman, the ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, will face arrest on criminal charges if he returns home, despite a stunning election success by his political allies last week.

Overthrown by a military coup last year, Thaksin, 58, used his wealth to win control of the football club this year in an imaginative strategy to reshape his image and win the support of the Thai masses.

Last week the charismatic telecoms billionaire and his wife, Pojaman, were commuting between Hong Kong and London while they kept one eye on City’s fortunes on the field and another on their dramatic change of fortune at home.

The couple face criminal charges over allegations of corruption in a land deal, while prosecutors are preparing other cases against Thaksin. Officials at the attorney-general’s office said he would be arrested on an outstanding warrant as soon as he landed at Bangkok.

“I’m sure I could prove my innocence as all the allegations are empty,” Thaksin told reporters last week. But his supporters believe he runs greater risks than a day in court.

Aides close to the exiled leader say he is fearful of violence if he returns before a new Thai government, likely to be composed of his supporters, takes power.

Thaksin believes that he escaped an assassination attempt in August 2006, when a car bomb was found near the route of his motorcade. In 2001 an explosion destroyed a Thai Airways Boeing 737 shortly before he was due to board it to fly to Chiang Mai, his home town in the north.

Thaksin was at the United Nations in New York when the army staged its bloodless coup on September 19 last year. There were suggestions by some supporters of the military that his life would have been forfeit had he stayed in Bangkok.

Thaksin became a hero to many poor Thais because he sponsored populist policies including cheap healthcare and low-cost village loans. He won outright election victories in 2001 and 2005. But he is reviled by the middle classes for alleged corruption, criticised by lawyers for human rights abuses and detested by the aristocratic elite around the royal court, who see his self-made wealth as a threat to inherited privilege.

The voters in Thailand’s impoverished northeast turned out in their millions last Sunday to hand a resounding endorsement to their champion in an election that gave the People Power party (PPP) 232 seats out of 480 in parliament.

The PPP, widely seen as backed by Thaksin’s money and prestige, is poised to form a coalition government, while the generals behind the coup now appear in disarray.

The military-appointed government, which was endorsed by Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is about to surrender office.

The army has also failed to crush a separatist insurgency in the majority Muslim provinces of Thailand’s deep south, where 2,800 people have died.

For the high command, the decision to resort to a traditional military coup against Thaksin has backfired. The generals fulfilled their pledge to restore democracy by allowing last weekend’s election, but the Thai media report that senior officers are now worried about their future.

Yet another coup cannot be ruled out. “It would be surprising if the generals and their allies accept the PPP-led government without a fight,” commented Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the political scientist.

He said a pro-Thaksin government could exact political retribution, challenge the military’s corporate interests and send it back to the margins of politics.

Thaksin and 110 of his political lieutenants were banned from politics after the coup and investigators froze an estimated £500m of his investments. But a new government could grant an amnesty, lift the ban and release the assets.

Thaksin maintains that he has relaxed during his British exile and has no wish to reenter politics. “Enough is enough for politics,” he declared last week.

Few took him at his word. “The ghost of Thaksin will not lie to rest easily,” commented The Nation, a Bangkok newspaper which is virulently opposed to him. “There are lots of scores to settle.”

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