A Deal in Thailand over Thaksin's Wealth?

Thailand's judgment day is approaching. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hand down the verdict on former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's Bt76 billion (US$2.3 billion) asset seizure case on Thursday.

Already tensions have escalated in the Thai capital. On February 14, one bomb exploded near Government House and another, planted near the Supreme Court, was successfully defused. No casualties were reported. Thais fear that this kind of terrorist attacks may not be the last. The authorities, especially the military, are keeping a watchful eye on Thaksin's red-shirted supporters. They will become the prime suspects should violence erupt.

Last week, an insider who claimed to have been involved in Thaksin's court case said privately that the nine judges have been under immense pressure from all sides and realise that the verdict would certainly not please all of the factions. The upcoming court case will undoubtedly mark another critical juncture in Thai politics. It will determine Thaksin's political direction as well as the role of the red-shirted movement.

Being aware that the verdict will shape the new phase of Thai politics, the judges, I was told, may consider a meet-halfway option as a sign of a political compromise with the fugitive former premier. It is possible that they will choose to let go of some of Thaksin's assets, while freezing and confiscating the rest. They will probably separate his assets into two parts; one earned during his pre-premiership period and the other accumulated while Thaksin served as prime minister. There is additional conjecture that Thaksin might be offered a portion of his fortune in exchange for an agreement to stay out of Thai politics for good.

Thaksin has always claimed that the assets he gained prior to taking up the premiership in 2001 were "honest money." This portion of assets is likely to be returned to him. But it is more complicated as the judges look into Thaksin's fortunes earned from 2001 to 2006 when he served as Thai premier.

Thaksin, for example, was accused of executing policies that benefited his family company, Shin Corp, particularly in a case related to government-sanctioned lending to Burma in 2004. Allegedly at Thaksin's intervention, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand was ordered to increase its credit line to Burma from Bt3 to 4 billion. The loans were extended to finance a deal with Shin Satellite, then under the control of Thaksin's family.

The judges may possibly find the deposed prime minister guilty of corruption in this and other similar cases, in which they have sufficient evidences to rule that his family business' deals were illegitimate. Accordingly, they would seize his assets in which his family benefitted from such deals.

The judges may also authorize the freezing of some funds, justifying it with the excuse that the authorities concerned have not yet been unable to finalise the evaluation of the damages. Therefore, the assets would be frozen until a verdict could be reached.

The last option, speculated by the red-shirts, suggests that the judges may altogether seize Thaksin's assets and find him guilty. The verdict would surely satisfy Thaksin's opponents who have over the years attempted to justify the military coup of 2006 that overthrew his elected government.

But it would infuriate Thaksin and the red shirts who have incessantly complained about the existing double standards and injustice in Thai society. The guilty verdict would further deepen Thailand's political polarisation, a situation which was recently described by Duncan McCargo, a senior lecturer on Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds in the UK. As Thais allowing themselves to be dominated by dogmatism rather than pragmatism as they actively engage in domestic politics.

As tensions rise in anticipation of the court ruling, all eyes are on the next move of the Red Shirts. Some of the core leaders, however, have reaffirmed that they would not resort to violence if the verdict fails to fulfil their expectation. The violence they perpetrated in April of 2009, in which they brought an Asean meeting to a stop and led to fighting in the streets of Bangkok, backfired on them. Although they say they can bring as many as 1 million protesters to the streets in the wake of the judgment, they say the protesters will remain peaceful. They have also made clear that their agenda is not about fighting for Thaksin's frozen assets, but about promoting a more just and equal society.

Strangely, it is the military, and to some extent, the Abhisit government, which seem to have talked frenziedly about the possible outbreak of violence. Predicting the violent scenario will justify the government's harsh measures against the so-called "persons with ill intentions."

The military has vowed to bring tens of thousands of troops to Bangkok's streets to keep order. Noticeably, some 200 checkpoints have been set up in and around Bangkok to monitor the traffic flow to the capital. Police and soldiers have been put on standby in 38 of Thailand 76 provinces. If the government foresees trouble, the cabinet will be asked to enforce the Internal Security Act (ISO), which essentially puts crowd control under the military instead of the police, many of whom are also regarded as loyal to Thaksin, a former police official. And if real violence is feared, Prime Minister Abhisit will declare a state of emergency, allowing authorities to crack down on protestors with impunity.

Meanwhile, General Boonlert Kaewprasit, former close aide of Deputy Prime Minister Sanan Kachornprasart, told reporters last week that the president of Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, was not Thaksin's real target. He said, "Thaksin's target could be higher than Prem. I believe there would be another round of military coup in the future." There is only one target higher than Prem, and that is the royal family. Boonlert's statement was widely seen as another scary tactic that could be used to legitimise the military intervention in politics if the situation gets out of hand after the verdict is read.

The scary scenario created by the state authorities has so far been effective. The US, Britain and Australia all have warned their citizens of possible civil unrest as the countdown for the court verdict has now begun. The Stock Exchange of Thailand has also played into the hands of the Thai authorities, warning that trading volatility could intensify if the Supreme Court delivers a guilty verdict Thaksin. The Thai political drama is indeed entering into its most dangerous stage.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is his personal view.