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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 12, 2008
Hide and seek for Thailand's Thaksin
By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - The world is shrinking for Thailand's former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as he seeks a new refuge in exile after recently being effectively banned from entering the United Kingdom. As the former premier's situation becomes more desperate, some fear it could spark new rounds of violence between his massed supporters and detractors in the Thai capital.
The British government recently revoked the visa's of Thaksin and his wife Pojaman, preventing them from re-entering the country where they have resided in self-exile since fleeing Thailand in August after a tax evasion ruling carrying a three-year jail term was handed down against Pojaman. Thaksin was last month convicted to two years in prison on conflict of interest charges


related to a case dating back to his tenure as premier.

Arrest warrants have been issued for both, effectively making them fugitives from Thai law. The lightning rod decision to bar the former first couple entry to the UK was made last week by the United Kingdom Border Agency. Airlines in Thailand, including the national carrier Thai Airways International, were all notified by e-mail of the immigration decision.

The UK's ban will simultaneously complicate the Thai government's efforts to extradite the former premier. "The government has to establish where Thaksin is living before they can issue extradition papers to that country," Sirisak Tiyapan, a director-general in the Attorney General's Office, told journalists. "We will need to track his whereabouts from now on," he said.

On Monday, British ambassador to Thailand, Quinton Quayle, met Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat for nearly an hour to brief his Thai counterpart on the decision. After the meeting Quayle did not take questions, but read a prepared statement to journalists.

"Throughout the political crisis in Thailand, the UK has been maintaining the steadfast principle of supporting Thailand's democratic institutions, without taking sides," the statement said. "The same principle has been reflected in our consideration of immigration matters, which are treated strictly in accordance with the UK law."

Thaksin's onward travel plans remain steeped in mystery, as they often do. He is currently in Beijing and has refused to say where his itinerary might take him next. He was definitely in Hong Kong on November 1, when he spoke in a controversial phone-in interview with a pro-government television talk show to more than 70,000 of his supporters rallying at a Bangkok sports stadium.

"Nobody can bring me back to Thailand, except the royal kindness of His Majesty the King or the power of the people," Thaksin said in the interview. His comments triggered new controversy with his political opponents and senior members of the Thai military, who claimed he had broken the law by dragging the monarchy into politics. By law, the Thai royal family is above politics and criticism.

Thaksin has blamed mainly the military forces who ousted him from power in a 2006 coup for his troubles. The British government's effective ban on his entry has irked him deeply, according to sources close to the former premier. Some fear the UK's decision may contribute to renewed antagonism towards Thaksin's political opponents, whom he has accused of trying to silence him.

"I will phone in and talk to the people who love and have faith in me," he said in a media interview on Monday. "I will make a longer speech and start naming names because they have pushed me into a corner," he said.

Thaksin is scheduled to meet in the Philippines with his ardent political allies and parliamentarians representing constituents in Thailand's northeastern region, where he remains overwhelmingly popular. Many of the poor farmers there regard him as a political hero, due to his government's various populist policies aimed at uplifting grassroots communities.

He is less popular in Thailand's southern region, where the opposition Democrat Party holds sway, and in the central rice growing areas surrounding and including the capital Bangkok. It is this widening political divide between Thaksin's supporters and opponents - now led by the Peoples' Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement, which has besieged Government House for almost three months - that has in recent months dramatically polarized the crisis-ridden country.

Rally cry for justice
The PAD had earlier staged rallies in front of the British Embassy in Bangkok, demanding that Thaksin be extradited after his criminal conviction in a land deal at a fraction of its market value involving a government agency then under the control of Thaksin and his wife. The current Thai government, led by Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, had already begun extradition proceedings, according to Thai diplomats.

Thaksin had reportedly started to apply for political asylum in the UK, but withdrew his application a few days before his ban was made public, according to a senior political source close to Thaksin. "I dropped the asylum bid because I don't think it is necessary," Thaksin said in a press interview. "I don't like the term asylum. I want freedom because I am a champion of democracy. I don't like anything that restricts freedom," he said.

However, the cancellation of his visa and decision not to go ahead with previous plans to apply for asylum may be related, according to Thai diplomats, who requested anonymity. A UK Home Office spokesman said that as a matter of policy individual cases were not discussed, though diplomatic sources said the action was almost inevitable following the former prime minister's conviction.

"There has been a lot of pressure coming on the UK government from Bangkok," a diplomatic source said. "In the circumstances, once they were out of Britain, the revocation of their visas was bound to happen sooner rather than later."

Thaksin had spent much of the past two years living at homes he bought in England, including a mansion in Surrey. Last year, he bought Manchester City Football Club before selling it at an apparent profit this summer to an Abu Dhabi-situated business consortium.

He is also reported to have purchased a property in China, according to a senior source in the People's Power Party who is closely aligned with the former prime minister. He is now believed to be building a mansion worth around $30 million on land near the Pine Valley Golf Course in Beijing owned by one of his business associates. Thaksin has denied the reports.

Sources close to the former premier said Thaksin had planned to stay in the UK indefinitely, even as Thailand demanded his extradition. Thaksin's lawyers had repeatedly argued that he should not be extradited because he had not received a fair trial in Thailand. There were also legal questions over whether or not the basis of his conviction was covered by the extradition agreements between the two countries.

"As it turns out, the British government appears to have done some nifty footwork and taken advantage of their absence from the country to revoke their visas and order airlines not to fly them back," reflected a diplomatic source in London. "That neatly solves the problem of extradition from a British standpoint. It doesn't force Thaksin to return to Thailand, but it does mean he has to find somewhere else to live, making him someone else's problem."

At present, China seems to be top of the list of his potential bases. The Chinese government maintains cordial relations with the former premier, and he and his wife were honored guests at the opening of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August. It was from Beijing that Thaksin flew to England instead of appearing for the opening hearing of the conflict of interest charges he was later convicted.

"If Britain bans him - then the EU will probably have to follow, as well as the members of the Commonwealth, including Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore," a former Thai ambassador to Japan and current de facto PAD spokesman, Kasit Piromya, told Asia Times Online. "This will also have an impact on ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]," he said, without elaborating.

Former Thai foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama, who was also once Thaksin's personal lawyer, told journalists he expected the ex-premier to live in an Asian country. He claimed many countries were still willing to give Thaksin a visa. "Thaksin is expected to pick a country that honors and welcomes him and from which he can travel independently," he said.

However, most Asian countries would be uneasy with Thaksin's continued involvement in Thai politics from within their borders, according to diplomats. "They are all very nervous of being used for political activities, and fear that this would damage relations with the Thai government," an Asian diplomat told Asia Times Online.

Beijing has warned Thaksin to steer clear of politics while in China, according to Chinese diplomats. Several developing countries in Africa, the Caribbean and South America have reportedly offered to take in the desperate former leader. He may already have honorary citizenship in the Bahamas - one of the countries that had previously offered him asylum, according to Thai newspapers.

Whether Thaksin will be safe and secure in any of those far-flung locations is still an open question. "We believe there are certainly members of the military who have contemplated killing Thaksin if he continues to elude the Thai justice system," according to a senior advisor to the Thai government who requested anonymity.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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