Post-Thaksin, a calmer Thailand?

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, facing corruption charges, fled to England this week. His absence may hurt the pro-Thaksin ruling party but also ease political strife.

By , Correspondent

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    Out of thailand: Thaksin Shinawatra (l.) and his family strolled through Guildford, England, Monday. This is the ex-prime minister's second time in exile in two years.
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Harried at home by legal investigations, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife got court permission to fly here last week for Friday's opening of the Beijing Olympics. The couple was due back in Bangkok Monday to appear in court, accused of defrauding the state in a land sale, one of a string of corruption cases facing them.

They never made it.

Instead, Mr. Thaksin – a twice-elected leader once touted as a regional statesman – and his wife, Pojamarn Shinawatra, fled to London. It was their second time in exile since his removal by a military coup in 2006. In a defiant statement on Monday, he protested his family's innocence and accused his opponents of rigging the courts against him. Within hours, the Supreme Court had issued an arrest warrant for the couple.

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Thaksin's latest exit may signal the endgame in a drawn-out political struggle that has divided Thailand and set back its democratic aspirations. In the short term, though, it could mean more turmoil for its ruling coalition that was elected last December on a pro-Thaksin ticket and faces possible impeachment over its handling of a dispute with Cambodia over a temple.

Few political observers will rule out an eventual return by Thaksin, a self-made millionaire whose tenacity and ambition have proved hard to contain. But the legal noose closing around his family, including a July 31 conviction of Ms. Pojamarn for tax evasion, will likely keep him at bay for now and could lead to a realignment of dueling political forces, say analysts.

"Without Thaksin, people can talk. I think there's a feeling that we should have a new beginning," says Kasit Piromya, a former ambassador to the US and an opposition supporter.

Thaksin loyalists look elsewhere

In recent months, thousands of street protesters have called for the downfall of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP). This opposition movement is popular with middle-class voters and royalist elites in Bangkok. But it has sparked angry reactions outside Bangkok from low-paid workers loyal to Thaksin, exposing a class divide in a society that prizes unity.

Protest leaders say they will continue their daily rallies, as Thaksin's exit doesn't mean the end of his influence. But his absence may sap their momentum.

Election-fraud investigations against the PPP and two other parties in the ruling coalition have already cast doubt over its staying power. By removing himself from the scene, Thaksin may trigger a stampede for the exits as lawmakers plot their future.

"You can see that within the political class, there are some true believers [in Thaksin]. But there's an awful lot of others who went with him because he was the man of the moment," says Chris Baker, a historian who co-wrote a critical Thaksin biography.

The result could be a mass defection of ruling-party members of parliament to the opposition Democrat Party, the flag-bearer for traditional elites aligned with the powerful monarchy. Another scenario is a snap election called to head off the threat of a court-ordered breakup of PPP.

"If Samak can hold the party together and strike the right compromises with Thaksin's antagonists, maybe his government will last. But most people are betting it won't," says Michael Montesano, an independent political analyst in Singapore.

Asylum in England?

During his previous spell in exile that ended in February, Thaksin divided his time between China and Britain, where he bought the Manchester City soccer team. While he can claim residency privileges as a high-profile investor, the risk of being snagged by a legal extradition may prompt him to seek political asylum.

Britain has an extradition treaty with Thailand, but most analysts are skeptical that it will ensnare Thaksin. More likely, they say, is a political asylum claim. Thaksin's note contained language that appears to echo that of British asylum law, says Mr. Baker.

"What happened to me and my family and my close relations resulted from efforts to get rid of me from politics," Thaksin wrote in his note, according to The Associated Press. Thaksin also claimed that he and his family faced death threats in Thailand.

Two weeks ago, the family sat glumly in a courtroom in Bangkok as a judge read out a guilty verdict against Pojamarn and two codefendants in a 1997 tax-evasion case. As supporters watched in disbelief on televisions outside the courthouse, the judge rebuked Pojamarn for setting a bad example to society and sentenced her to three years in jail, before freeing her on bail.

Pojamarn was critical in shaping Thaksin's political rise, from stints in short-lived coalitions in the 1990s to an election win in 2001. But irregularities in an asset declaration brought him that year before the Constitutional Court, which narrowly voted to acquit him.

Critics say Thaksin's brush with the judiciary led him to steadily dismantle independent checks on his elected power, which grew after a 2005 landslide reelection on the back of a resurgent economy. Opponents began to rally against his government, paving the way for a bloodless coup in 2006.

A slew of official investigations into corruption that began under the military-installed government have begun to chip away at Thaksin's chance of a political comeback.

The respected judiciary might also be succeeding where Thailand's flat-footed generals failed in undermining Thaksin's image as a champion of the poor who fell afoul of vested interests. But that leaves his rural supporters with nowhere to turn as elites in Bangkok reassert control.

"Time has passed and Thaksin's magic and aura have dissipated significantly.... On the other hand, the rural masses have been awakened by Thaksin and his policies. The tragedy is that they have no leader to look to," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

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