Thaksin on a mission to humiliate Thai government

Thaksin on a mission to humiliate Thai government - AP, November 7, 2009

[2015 note: Like many newspaper articles from just a few years ago, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

BANGKOK — Thailand's fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has spent much of the past three years roaming the globe, shopping for diamonds in Africa, golfing at Asian resorts - and humiliating the government from a distance.

Now, the deposed and divisive ex-leader is an economic adviser to the government of neighboring Cambodia, and that's too close for comfort for Thailand's current leadership.

The appointment earlier this week by Cambodia's mercurial Prime Minister Hun Sen has jangled nerves in the Thai capital and entangled both countries in a diplomatic brawl that prompted Thailand first and then Cambodia to recall their ambassadors Thursday.

Hun Sen had soured already tense relations last month by offering Thaksin a home in Cambodia and vowing not to extradite him. The comments rattled Thailand, which has a nasty dispute with its neighbor over border territory that led to several small but deadly clashes over the past year and a half. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup after being accused of massive corruption and now helps lead the opposition from abroad.

Analysts say Thaksin's latest move could be the launch-pad for a political comeback.

"Thaksin is on a new offensive. This is a calculated campaign to undermine this government and to change governments," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "He wants to retake what he sees as his legitimate right, which is to have another election that he believes he will win."

For the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Cambodia's action is a slap in the face it feels compelled to respond to. It called the appointment an "interference in Thailand's domestic affairs."

Thaksin is believed to be in Dubai. He has not indicated if he plans to live in Cambodia or spelled out how he will perform his new dual role as personal adviser to Hun Sen and an economic adviser to his government.

From cyberspace, Thaksin tweeted to his 40,000 Twitter followers that Abhisit's recall of the Thai ambassador was a "childish overreaction."

"I'm asking permission from all Thai people to advise the Cambodian government ... until I have a chance to serve you again," he tweeted separately, calling his new job "an honor."

Thaksin, a tycoon turned politician, was elected by landslide wins to serve two terms as prime minister from 2001 to 2006. He retains huge popularity among his rural poor power base who have staged frequent rallies calling for his pardon and return to power. But he is reviled by the educated urban elite, who led months of street protests that led to the coup and again when his allies briefly took power.

Efforts to minimize Thaksin's role in Thai politics have failed. Thai courts have sentenced him to two years in prison for corruption while in office and dissolved his political party, while his Thai assets worth $2.25 billion have been frozen and his Thai personal and diplomatic passports canceled.

Britain, Germany and other countries have barred Thaksin, but there were no shortage of others willing to accept his investment offers and hand over new passports, including Nicaragua and Montenegro.

Thaksin posts photos of his travels on Facebook. Recent snapshots show him golfing in Brunei and Dubai, inspecting diamond mines in South Africa, sipping coffee in a private jet and meeting prime ministers or presidents on trips to Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and the Maldives.

Investment in diamond and gold sectors has led Thaksin to Liberia, Uganda and Swaziland, prompting one tweet in August after negative headlines at home: "I've checked several times that my diamonds are not blood diamonds. Don't worry."

Thaksin's new relationship with Hun Sen is bound to revive speculation of private business deals between the two while he was prime minister.

No such ethical doubts dog current Prime Minister Abhisit, but he faces the challenge of how to calm the political maelstrom around Thaksin.

"Thailand is now in the international spotlight and its leader has been discredited," said Sompop Manarungsan, a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. "The strategy Thaksin is using, I call it 'crashing.' He is destroying everything in his path to reach his goal."
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