February 26, 2010
Thai Court Seizes $1.4 Billion From Ex-Premier
By SETH MYDANS and THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK — Thailand’s Supreme Court on Friday confiscated $1.4 billion in frozen assets from the nation’s fugitive former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, after finding him guilty of illegally concealing his ownership of a family company and abusing his power to benefit the companies he owned.
But it softened the blow by allowing him to keep the remainder of what had been a total of $2.3 billion in frozen assets, saying that “to seize all the money would be unfair because some of it was made before Thaksin became prime minister.”
The case resonates in Thailand beyond the assets of one man, part of a long-running and sporadically violent confrontation that has divided the country. It has pitted the nation’s rural and urban poor, who support Mr. Thaksin, against the established ruling class, whose control of the political system he challenged during his six years as prime minister.
“This case is very political,” Mr. Thaksin said during a televised response from an undisclosed location outside the country. “The court was used to get rid of a politician. The ruling will be a joke for the world.”
In reading the verdict, the nine-judge panel repeatedly described Mr. Thaksin’s business dealings as “unscrupulous.” It ruled unanimously that Mr. Thaksin and his former wife, Pojaman, falsely claimed to have transferred their shares of his former telecommunications company, Shin Corp., to family members because he was not allowed to hold them while prime minister.
The court said that Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire who was ousted in a coup in 2006, had abused power by tailoring government policies to benefit Shin Corp. and related businesses.
“The accused unscrupulously received money from selling shares through the use of his political powers,” a judge said.
The paradox of Mr. Thaksin’s political movement — that a billionaire telecommunications tycoon has inspired large swaths of poor, disaffected voters with populist policies like inexpensive health care and financial assistance — was on display Friday at the headquarters of the main opposition party, where his followers gathered to hear the verdict.
“It’s not fair; there’s no justice any longer in Thailand,” said Sunaree Siraseehakul, a 72-year-old clothing trader in Bangkok.
Calm at first, the crowd at the opposition headquarters became roiled with anger, shouting obscenities as the judges read the verdict. They broke into a chant, “Thaksin, fight! Fight!”
Late in the evening, there were still no reports of the violent reaction the government had warned about. Thousands of police officers and soldiers had been placed on alert around Bangkok to guard against any violent backlash by his supporters. Riot police officers with shields and helmets guarded the courthouse as the nine justices spent more than seven hours reading out the arguments and their ruling.
Mr. Thaksin’s supporters, known as the red shirts for the outfits they wear at rallies, have been violent in the past. But they denied government warnings that they planned demonstrations on Friday. Instead, they said, they were organizing a mass rally in Bangkok for mid-March.
“We will not do anything today,” said Sit Kitanon, 58, a businessman in a red shirt, as he stood in front of the courthouse. “Today is not our day. But our day will come.”
He added: “If the court destroys Thaksin, the court is destroying democracy. I am not here for Thaksin, but I care about justice.”
Mr. Thaksin sold Shin Corp. to a Singaporean holding company in January 2006, a transaction that evaded taxes, aroused anger and prompted street demonstrations that set the stage for the coup nine months later.
When the generals relinquished power in a new election a little more than a year later, a party backing Mr. Thaksin was overwhelmingly elected.
Protests resumed, and in August of 2008, thousands of anti-Thaksin demonstrators, known as yellow shirts, barricaded the prime minister’s compound, setting up a tent city and demanding that the government be dissolved. In late November, they took over Bangkok’s two airports for a week, stranding thousands of passengers.
They ended their protests in December, when a court found the pro-Thaksin governing party guilty of electoral fraud, forcing its dissolution. The current government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, took office in a parliamentary vote. Since then, it has been the pro-Thaksin protesters who have been demanding the dissolution of what they call an unelected government.
In April 2009, they forced the closure of a regional summit meeting in Pattaya, and shortly afterward paralyzed the capital with riots that left two people dead.
Many in Bangkok took the government’s warnings to heart and stayed off the streets Friday, some of them following the court proceedings on radio and on voice feeds to television. Some people said that in the charged atmosphere Friday, they were avoiding wearing the colors red or yellow for fear of starting an argument.
“It is a sensitive day,” said Weena Sirithinpayak, a saleswoman in a shopping mall in central Bangkok.
But it seems to be a given here now that Thailand’s acrimonious divide will not be resolved easily, or perhaps even peacefully.
“It’s becoming more of a class thing and I’m worried about that,” said Rainy Phrompechrut, a writer for a golf magazine.
In a running blog on the court session, Thanong Khanthong, a columnist for The Nation newspaper, wrote: “The potential clash looks inevitable as any political compromise is out of the question.”
Mr. Thaksin has been living outside of the country since August 2007, after jumping bail and fleeing 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, and apparently retains enough wealth to finance a nationwide political machine.