The ruling is a blow to Mr. Thaksin, who had protested his innocence. And it seems unlikely to call a halt to a protracted power struggle between Thaksin allies and Thai conservatives aligned to the influential monarchy.
The court ruled that Thaksin and his wife had illegally concealed their ownership of Thailand’s largest mobile phone company during his five-year rule. It found that several government policies were crafted specifically to benefit companies in Shin Corp, the family’s conglomerate, at a substantial cost to taxpayers. The company was sold in January 2006 to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings.
An additional $900 million of Thaksin’s fortune was ordered to be unfrozen, in theory returning it to its owner. But the guilty verdict potentially opens the door to further criminal charges against the former leader, who lives in exile in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The verdict underscores the role of Thailand’s judiciary in adjudicating a deep-rooted political dispute that has paralyzed a longtime American ally in Asia. Since a 2006 coup that removed Thaksin, he and his allies have lost a string of important court cases, while his opponents have largely been spared. This has fueled frustration among his supporters over judicial bias and political interference by royalist officials whom they accuse of persecuting a democratically elected leader.
“This confirms what people already think they know, that they’re going all out to stop [Thaksin]. I don’t think that it changes anything at all,” says Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Government officials and media outlets have urged the public to accept the judges’ decision. In recent weeks, security forces have gone on high alert for large gatherings by pro-Thaksin protesters who had vowed to take to the streets. But there was little sign Friday of any mass protests and only a few hundred supporters rallied across the street from the court.
Inside the wood-paneled courtroom, the panel of nine judges took turns to read aloud the entire trial proceedings to a half-empty gallery. None of Thaksin’s family members who held shares in Shin Corp attended the hearing.
The fight goes on
Even before the verdict was pronounced, Thaksin’s supporters insisted that their street protests, which have turned violent in the past, would continue regardless. A planned March 14 rally of up to 1 million people in Bangkok is to urge the ruling coalition to dissolve parliament and return power to the people, says Jatuporn Prompan, an opposition lawmaker.
“The red shirts want the country to be a real democracy and to put a stop to double standards,” he says.
Government supporters had hoped that a guilty verdict might deter Thaksin by tarnishing his record in office and starving him of extra funds for political campaigns. “If Thaksin doesn’t support the Reds with his money, the demonstrations will decrease in size,” says Thepthai Senpong, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party.
But observers say that Thaksin is unwilling to abandon his fight to regain power, even if Friday’s court seizure fails to ignite mass protests. He was also sentenced last year to a two-year jail term over the sale in 2003 of government land to his wife.
Mixing business and politics
Friday’s ruling focused on Shin Corp, the company that Thaksin founded and built into one of Thailand’s most successful conglomerates, with interests in telecoms, property, airlines, and satellites. As prime minister, Thaksin was required to divest himself of ownership of any companies with government contracts. He transferred shares in Shin Corp to family members, a common ruse in Thailand. But his government was dogged by accusations that Thaksin’s business interests shaped public policy.
The Supreme Court found that Thaksin used a government bank to finance the sale of his satellite services to Burma (Myanmar). Other favorable policies included changes to concession fees paid by Shin Corp’s mobile-phone division.
Thaksin was far from the first Asian leader to mix business and politics. His rise to power in 2001 was propelled by Thai businesspeople fed up with politicians and seduced by Thaksin’s promise of CEO-style leadership and his nationalist rhetoric.
However, the sale of Shin Corp to Singapore raised nationalist hackles in Thailand and proved a fatal blow to Thaksin’s credibility. Protesters at the time also seized on the deal’s structure and the use of offshore companies that avoid capital-gains tax.