Thaksin Goes to America

Former prime minister-turned-fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra made world headlines again. This time, he has been invited to Washington by the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to address human rights issues in Thailand, in particular the state's brutal crackdown on red-shirt protesters during March-May this year that left 91 people dead, mostly civilians, and some 1,900 injured.

Thaksin is supposed to testify before the CSCE on Dec. 16, a move that has gravely irked his opponents in Bangkok. His visit to the United States will produce a myriad of implications both on Thailand's domestic political situation and the relationship between Bangkok and Washington.

The anti-Thaksin faction has already protested against the CSCE's invitation. They perceived it as absurd decision since Thaksin himself was never a human rights advocate. It is true that Thaksin formulated a number of controversial policies while serving as prime minister, including his 2003 war on drugs campaign that endorsed extra-judicial killings against over 2,500 narcotic suspects and his hard-nosed measures against Thai Muslims in the deep south.

It is apparent, however, that the CSCE is not interested in Thaksin's notorious past, but rather the failure of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to explain to Thais and the outside world about the deadly incident. Indeed, his government has made no serious attempt to take any responsibility for the loss of lives of the red-shirt demonstrators. Instead, it accused some of them as being members of a terrorist network.

When I gave a talk to the Singaporean public in the aftermath of the May incident and tried to point out such lack of responsibility on the part of the Abhisit government, a top diplomat from the Royal Thai Embassy in Singapore condemned me for making "disturbing statements" and argued that the Thai security forces did not kill the protestors.

The government's unwillingness to come clean with the mistakes during the clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces has allowed Thaksin to take advantage of the situation. Although he might not be able to whitewash his past, at least Thaksin could exploit this opportunity to further discredit the Abhisit government.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, the government's spokesperson, said that he did not know if Thaksin's legal adviser Robert Amsterdam had lobbied the CSCE to invite the former prime minister to the United States, since the CSCE had not shown any interest in the situation in Asia before.

Panitan also brushed off the allegation that his government failed to reveal the truth behind the incident to the general public. He said, "The international community should already be well informed about the situation in Thailand because the government has constantly explained the political situation to world leaders."

The above statement invites a number of interesting questions. If the government is certain that the international community has already understood the situation, then why should it be bothered with Thaksin's appearing before the CSCE? Or is it because the government's defensive position may have nothing to do with hunting down Thaksin but more to do with protecting its little-left legitimacy?

Currently, the government is preoccupied with making sure that the former prime minister will not win this propaganda game. Already, Prime Minister Abhisit has assigned the right-wing foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, to work closely with his American counterpart for the extradition of Thaksin once he sets foot in the United States.

Kasit may want to remind his American friends that Thailand was forced by Washington to hand over suspected Russian arms dealer Victor Bout to the United States amid Moscow's discontentment. Would it be too much for Thailand to request the same thing from the American government?

The greatest hurdle for Kasit is how to persuade the United States to return the favor. Thaksin is a fugitive from Thai law after being found guilty by the Supreme Court of abusing his authority in the case of his former wife's purchase of a block of land in Bangkok's Rachasaphisek area. He was sentenced in October 2008 to two years of imprisonment.

But according to Tharit Pengdit, Director-General of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), this sentence would not carry enough weight to convince the United States to extradite him. "It is a normal case, not a terrorism case," Tharit said.

The Thai government may have accused Thaksin of masterminding the arson attacks against public property in May 2010 and of leading the red-shirt terrorist cells, but so far it has been unable to find credible evidence that prove the accusation. The international community sees this as an internal struggle for power between Thaksin and his enemies, rather than as a serious terrorist network designed to destabilise the Thai state.

If Thaksin ever makes it to Washington, his visit will undoubtedly guarantee a political drama played out by all sides of the Thai crisis. Kasit has already placed his close aide, Kitthipong Na Ranong, as Thai ambassador to Washington. Kittiphong, known as a fierce Thaksin critic, will be given an opportunity to exercise his authority to dishonor Thaksin's presence in the American capital.

Similarly, Thaksin's supporters will regain their confidence in the fight against the current regime. They will exploit the invitation to Thaksin as a symbol of the US's recognition of Thaksin as still a key player in the Thai conflict. Thaksin's resurgence at this point is also crucial for the opposition Puea Thai Party, since there have been rumours that Prime Minister Abhisit may call for an election in the first quarter of 2011.

As for Thai-US relations, the invitation could be interpreted as the United States trying to balance its relationship with both sides of the Thai conflict. Washington has long been criticised by the red-shirt movement for aligning its interests too close to the traditional elite at the expense of damaging Thai democracy. The United States could utilise Thaksin's visit to reiterate that Washington is still supporting democratisation in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The views expressed here are his own.