February 24, 2010
Thailand Bracing for Ruling on Thaksin’s Assets
By SETH MYDANS
BANGKOK — Friday is “judgment day” in Thailand, with a court set to decide whether to confiscate $2.3 billion in frozen assets belonging to the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The government is warning of potential violence by Mr. Thaksin’s supporters if the ruling goes against him. Soldiers and the police have been put on alert, checkpoints are in place, government buildings are under guard and judges have been offered safe houses.
Some analysts call the warnings propaganda to discredit the opposition, which has said it will mobilize only a small crowd on Friday at the courthouse in Bangkok where the ruling is to be announced.
Months of demonstrations by Mr. Thaksin’s supporters, continuing rumors of coups and small, symbolic acts of violence, like the firing of a grenade into the empty office of the army commander, have set the capital on edge.
Newspapers have stoked the sense of urgency, with daily countdowns to “judgment day” and with headlines like one that appeared on Wednesday, in bold, red type, in The Nation: “Exclusive Interview: Absolutely No Coup.”
Mr. Thaksin, 60, who was overthrown in a coup in 2006, faces the loss of all or some of his frozen assets if the Supreme Court finds that he concealed his ownership of the funds or that he used his office to enrich himself. The assets total 76 billion baht, or $2.3 billion.
Mr. Thaksin has been living abroad since August 2007, having jumped bail and fled a two-year sentence for violating conflict of interest rules in connection with the purchase of land in Bangkok while he was prime minister.
But he has remained a political force at home as he travels the world from his base in Dubai, evading a Thai demand for his extradition.
A telecommunications tycoon, Mr. Thaksin apparently retains enough wealth abroad to finance a nationwide political machine. A seizure of his assets frozen in Thailand should have no effect on this, said Thongchai Winijakul, a Thai historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“It has been almost four years, and the movement is getting bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger without this frozen money,” he said.
Communicating by video link, telephone and Twitter, Mr. Thaksin has become a virtual leader of the opposition.
“I don’t want to die outside of Thailand,” he said in a radio address reported Wednesday in The Nation, although he is free to return at any time to serve his prison term. “I want to return to die in my country. I don’t want to return as bones and ashes.”
The former prime minister’s mostly poor and rural supporters remain devoted to him, and most analysts believe that any party he backs would easily win a new election, as they have the last three times, starting in 2001 when he first took office.
As prime minister, Mr. Thaksin mobilized this base with populist policies like low-cost health care and financial assistance, and it is the empowerment of the country’s poor majority that underlies the current political tensions in Thailand. The weight of their vote challenges a tradition-bound establishment of royalists and the urban elite, which has resisted a weakening of Thailand’s paternalistic, top-down power structure.
One sign of the country’s polarization and volatility is that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who heads the smaller Democrat party, is unable even to travel to Mr. Thaksin’s base in the rural heartland for fear of being attacked.
The rising power of the Thai poor is one of two significant dynamics in this difficult period of change, said Charles Keyes, an expert on Thailand at the University of Washington in Seattle. The other is the age and ill health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, who has been on the throne for nearly 64 years and whose presence offers the Thai people a sense of identity and continuity.
The king has been in a hospital since September, suffering from a lung infection and other ailments, and has carried out some royal functions there. Although he has no formal political power, his moral authority has held the country together in earlier times of crisis.
His heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not share his father’s popularity and will inherit his throne but not his aura. This will deprive the establishment of its core and set unpredictable forces in motion, analysts say.
“There’s not going to be a rallying force for the monarchy that there has been,” Mr. Keyes said. “There could be real change.”
The ruling on Friday will be the latest in a series of influential court judgments since the king, in 2006, encouraged judges to take a more assertive role in the country’s conflicts.
Since then, major rulings have mostly gone against Mr. Thaksin. The courts have nullified an election he won in 2006, barred him and 110 of his party’s executives from politics for five years, dissolved two parties linked to him and ruled against both Mr. Thaksin and his former wife in corruption cases.
The current government came to power in December 2008 in a parliamentary vote after a court forced a pro-Thaksin prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, to step down because he had received money for hosting a cooking show on television.
The king has continued to exhort judges; on Monday at a ceremony in the hospital, he urged newly appointed judges, standing at attention in white military-style uniforms, to be brave and to honor the truth.
As the years have passed, a portion of the opposition — known as the red shirts, for the color that they wear at rallies — has shifted from strict allegiance to Mr. Thaksin to a less personal movement that claims to support democracy.
Differences have also emerged among the red shirts over the best way to challenge the government, with its apparently solid backing by the military.
One tactic would be to create turmoil that might bring down the government and force an early election — starting, for example, with violent protests against the confiscation of Mr. Thaksin’s assets.
The other would be to wait until the next scheduled election, in 2012, keeping their base active in the meantime with protests, seminars and rallies calling for Mr. Thaksin’s return.
“The best option for the reds to win is by election,” said Mr. Thongchai, the Thai historian. “No matter what, if they just wait, they have the vote. They are not stupid. They can wait.”