31 March 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra hopes assassins will stop hunting him, and a deal can be arranged allowing him to dodge imprisonment and return home a free man.



Mr. Thaksin also hopes his enemies will stop accusing him of presiding over a regime which allegedly included 2,600 extrajudicial executions during his failed "war on drugs" in 2003, plus personal corruption and other wrongdoing.



Ultimately, he wants this predominantly Buddhist society to twist the constitution or the judicial system -- or create other loopholes -- to cancel his two-year prison sentence imposed for a conflict-of-interest deal which enabled his wealthy, politically savvy wife to purchase government-owned real estate in Bangkok during 2003.



Mr. Thaksin, now divorced, dwells in self-exile amid five-star splendor in Dubai.



"He has already told the media that he is willing to return, to go through the judicial process," said Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat in April.



That newest scenario apparently would include a fresh trial for the real estate deal, with different judges, amid speculation that even a guilty verdict should result merely in a fine, and not imprisonment.



"The process must be really fair, especially the appointment of people in charge of the process," the pro-Thaksin defense minister said.



"If things were fair, he would return."



Mr. Thaksin's defense might be that he was too far removed from the government body which oversaw the real estate deal, and thus was merely indirectly involved as prime minister, according to a foreign lawyer who is not involved in the litigation.



Mr. Thaksin might also have to abandon efforts to retrieve 1.2 billion dollars worth of his assets, which Thailand's highest court seized in February 2010 in connection to his personally profitable investments which were deemed corrupt because he made them while prime minister.



"Thaksin may have to give in, and not reclaim" the 1.2 billion dollars, said a supportive parliamentarian Sanoh Thienthong in April.



"Better to think of the money as a donation to charity," Mr. Sanoh said.



If he forfeits that cash, Mr. Thaksin may probably still be a billionaire based on his family's holdings, so such a deal could be his ticket home.



To test the mood, he has been probing along Thailand's northern and eastern borders.



During an April 11-15 trip, he landed his private plane across the Mekong River in communist-controlled Laos, and then celebrated Buddhism's joyous New Year in Cambodia near the ancient, slave-built Angkor Wat temple complex.



"This is as close as I can get to my homeland," Mr. Thaksin told a crowd near Vientiane, Laos.



"It will not be long before I will go back to my brothers and sisters."



In a private video broadcast from Laos, he said, "With your support, I am likely to return home this year."



Mr. Thaksin has not returned to Thailand since fleeing in 2008.



Ditching his hard-line reputation for announcing crackdowns and confronting his opponents, he instead waxed coy and crooned Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and the Beatles' "Let It Be" on April 14 to more than 10,000 eager supporters -- including many of his activist Red Shirts -- who traveled to Cambodia from Thailand to welcome him.



"I managed to escape four assassination attempts, thanks to my good luck and a good amulet," which he believes can protect him, Mr. Thaksin said without elaborating on the murderous attempts.



"I have not harmed anyone or done anything wrong. I want to return home when I will be able to freely walk its streets, not drive around in an armored car."



Gone are his glory days when Mr. Thaksin was thrice voted to be prime minister during his authoritarian 2001-2006 administration.



Thailand's U.S.-trained, pro-royalist military toppled Mr. Thaksin in a 2006 coup amid unhappiness by generals anxious about their promotions, and fears that Mr. Thaksin was installing cronies in powerful positions within this society's military, political and economic structure.



Today, Washington maintains close relations with Mr. Thaksin's youngest sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected in August 2011 after Mr. Thaksin hailed the politically inexperienced woman as his "clone."



Apparently learning the lesson from her brother's fate, Mrs. Yingluck is giving the military a freer reign in deciding their promotions, budgets, weapons procurements and other requests.



The sister and brother rule this pro-capitalist country together but Mr. Thaksin, 62, manipulates her from abroad.



The duo are meanwhile having a tough time orchestrating other aspects of their "amnesty" -- also dubbed "reconciliation" -- for Mr. Thaksin so he can return without being jailed.



To sweeten the deal, their coalition government suggested a blanket amnesty for groups of people charged or convicted of "political" crimes since 2005.



This would include generals who staged the coup, even though the military awarded itself immunity immediately after establishing a lackluster junta, and have never faced prosecution.



The amnesty would also include the generals and opposition politicians perceived as responsible for 91 deaths -- mostly civilians -- during nine weeks of street fights between security forces and thousands of Red Shirt supporters, who barricaded Bangkok's streets in 2010 while demanding an immediate election.



Critics warn that any widespread amnesty would destroy Thailand's judicial system.



Some opponents of the amnesty threatened to take to the streets, or call on the military to stage a fresh coup.



Mr. Thaksin, however, relishes the day when he can return.



"When I return to Thailand, I would rather take up teaching duties, apart from acting as an adviser to the prime minister," he told a reporter in April.



"I am willing to teach at any institutions," Mr. Thaksin said.



"You get things done, Il Duce," wrote the Bangkok Post's respected columnist Voranai Vanijaka on April 15, under the headline: "Il Duce, Come Home Now" -- mocking Mr. Thaksin by calling him the nickname of the 20th century's executed Italian Fascist Party leader Benito Mussolini.



"Your body counts are second to none in this kingdom," Mr. Voranai said, referring to the 2,600 people killed in murky circumstances during Mr. Thaksin's war on drugs in 2003.



Shortly after the military seized power in the 2006 coup, it issued a White Paper which said "the narcotic suppression campaign of the previous [Thaksin] government had led to a large number of extra-judicial killings -- approximately 2,500 deaths.



"Such action not only caused grave losses to the families of those who died, but also constituted a serious violation of human rights, of a scale unprecedented in a Buddhist society like Thailand."



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Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.



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(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)