Monday, August 11, 2008

Thaksin Shinawatra seeks refuge in Britain

Monday, August 11, 2008

BANGKOK: The former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, skipped a court appearance Monday and announced that he was seeking refuge in London, leaving behind $2 billion in assets frozen by the generals who deposed him two years ago.

The Thai Supreme Court acted quickly after Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, failed to show up for a hearing, ordering bail money seized and issuing warrants for their arrest. The forfeited bail of nearly $400,000 was in addition to the 68.5 billion baht, or $2 billion, already frozen by the government, money that the family unsuccessfully sought access to in recent weeks.

The absence of Thaksin's outsized presence and personality will probably embolden his critics in Thailand, but it is far from a guarantee that the internecine political battles that have bedeviled this country since his ouster in 2006 will cease. Millions of supporters have been irritated by what they view as Thaksin's political persecution.

In a bitter, handwritten note read by newscasters on television, Thaksin said that he rode in bulletproof cars in Thailand, constantly fearing for his life, and that he had lost faith in the judiciary to hear fairly the many cases brought against him by a military-appointed panel after the military coup. His wife was recently sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion and the couple faces other cases for corruption and financial misdeeds.

"This is what I get for serving the country, the monarchy and the people with hard work and dedication for six years as prime minister," Thaksin wrote.

Khamnuan Chalopatham, one of Thaksin's lawyers, confirmed the authenticity of the note.

Thaksin and his wife, who had been attending the Olympic Games in Beijing, flew directly to London instead of returning to Bangkok for a scheduled court appearance Monday, Thai media reported.

"I am not perfect, but I insist that I am not as bad as what they accuse me of," Thaksin wrote in his letter.

"I must apologize again for deciding to come to live in England," Thaksin added. "If I am fortunate enough, I will return and die on Thai soil, just like other Thais."

Thaksin's three children left Bangkok for London on Saturday accompanied by a family secretary and 14 checked bags weighing a total of 360 kilograms, or almost 800 pounds, according to the Manager newspaper here.

Legal analysts said Monday that Thaksin would be shielded in Britain by extradition laws that favor defendants. The cases of two executives who fled Thailand for Britain during the 1997 financial crisis and who are wanted for alleged malfeasance have dragged on without resolution. But Thaksin's high profile presents a dilemma for the British government over how much cooperation to give the Thai authorities. Officials here suggested Monday that they had no choice but to begin extradition proceedings.

The main Thai stock market index closed 1.77 percent higher Monday on the apparent hope that Thaksin's exile would ease tensions in the country.

But Sondhi Limthongkul, one of the leaders of a protest movement that has staged daily demonstrations for several months, said that he would not be satisfied until the government, which came to power on the support of Thaksin's large rural support base, steps down. "Nothing changes," he said. "We will continue our protests."

Thaksin's passionate detractors are an influential minority in Thailand, mainly Thais from the urban middle class and the elite.

Thaksin had sweet words for his new home: England, he wrote in his note, was a country "that holds to democracy above all else."

Thaksin has a controlling stake in the Manchester City soccer team, which he bought last year for £21.6 million, or $41.4 million.

In Thailand, Thaksin said he had been a victim of a "political assassination" by officials with what he described as dictatorial powers.

"My family and I were continually treated unfairly without justice or truth," he said.

It was unclear what effect Thaksin's departure would have on the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who has been accused by critics of being Thaksin's puppet.

Many of the ministers and members of Parliament in the governing coalition are former allies or members of Thaksin's disbanded Thai Rak Thai party. Samak made no public statements Monday.

Surapong Suebwonglee, the finance minister and for years a close associate of Thaksin's, said the governing party, the People Power Party, would be independent. "Thaksin's presence or absence doesn't have any sway on its direction," Surapong said.

Janesara Fugal contributed reporting from Bangkok.

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