Thaksin Returns to Face the Music

thai-thak

After 17 months of exile following the September 2006 coup that deposed him and drove him from the country, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrived to the cheering of thousands of supporters at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport Thursday and vowed to quit Thai politics for good.

The big question is whether he means that, and what effect he will have on Thai politics, which he dominated so effectively from 2001 until he was defenestrated. He told reporters that his only ambition was to clear his name and live peacefully, but the country is still wondering whether his exile was a sabbatical or a permanent separation to watch the Manchester Football Club team that he bought while on enforced holiday.

Thaksin waved emotionally to the crowds before heading to court, where he was quickly released on bail in a pre-arranged deal.

"I want to prove myself and reclaim my reputation, which was destroyed in an unjustified and unfair manner," Thaksin told at a press briefing at the lavish Peninsula Hotel "All of us are Thai, and we have interacted or known each other one way or another," he added in an English-language statement. "It will be best for all of us to reduce our egos and our prejudice. All of us should compromise and unite for our country and our beloved king."

Thaksin's return comes two months after his allies in the People Power Party won the first election since the putsch in a severe blow to the generals and, given the electoral success, raises questions about just how permanent his retirement will be. In the first few months new Prime Minister Samak Sudaravej has already sought to restore the populist policies of the deposed Thai Rak Thai government, and now Thaksin will look to clear his name and recoup a large chunk of his fortune that was frozen last year.

As he looks to sort out the flimsy cases the junta brought against him, his human rights record as prime minister does not appear to be under scrutiny. The military leaders chose not to investigate the “War on Drugs” in which at least 2,000 people were executed by police; or the bungled handling of the Muslim separatist movement in Southern Thailand, particularly the incidents at Krue Se Mosque and Tak Bai in which hundreds died at state hands; or the disappearance of Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, even though Thaksin claimed he knew who was involved.

It's hard to find an analyst who doesn't think Thaksin's tenure as prime minister was rife with conflict of interest. The 1997 constitution mandated strict rules for concealing assets, and Thaksin was essentially caught red-handed even before he won his first election in 2001.

While the judiciary has historically served the interests of those in power, after the 1997 constitution came into effect the new investigative bodies seemed to have real teeth. With solid evidence presented against Thaksin in 2001, the Constitutional Court looked poised to find him guilty and ban him for politics for five years. But instead they acquitted him in a controversial 8-7 vote that many believe was due to the influence of money and power, sending the country's democratic institutions into a slow tailspin. Since that decision, Thaksin's critics have largely focused on his conflicts of interest and attempts to paralyze the constitution's checks and balances.

The coup was supposed to remedy this, but the generals' aim was way off. Instead of fixing the justice system, which is at the root of the country's political instability, the generals mangled it even more in an attempt to bury Thaksin. In the past two years, they have rewritten the constitution to take away power from elected representatives and set up a military court that dissolved Thaksin's political party and enforced an ex post facto law to ban him and 110 other leaders for politics from five years.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej's speech to judges in April 2006 had the effect of institutionalizing the role of judges as political power brokers instead of guardians of the law. The transcript of this leaked audiotape from a phone conversation with key judges concerning the decision to void the April 2006 election reveals how political expediency often trumps the rule of law in major court cases.

Legal experts expect nothing less in the cases against Thaksin, as well as a potential case that might see the PPP dissolved. They are merely bargaining chips in a grand political game that has little to do with justice.

"These cases give the powers behind the court some negotiating power over Thaksin," said Kanin Boonsuwan, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's law school. "It's a political issue now, not a legal one."

Charges fail to materialize

When the generals took over that rainy night in September 2006, things looked grim for Thaksin. The coupsters unveiled a laundry list of corruption allegations to justify the coup, and created an Assets Examination Committee (AEC) with sweeping powers to find the evidence.

Shady deals popped up left and right. The procurement of CTX airport bomb scanners, a rubber sapling project, two and three-digit lotteries,misuse of tsunami aid donations, an e-passport project, the Ua-arthorn low housing project and others were all said to involve corruption.

But while many people routinely claim Thaksin's government was one of the most corrupt ever, either the junta was too timid to press charges in most cases or they couldn't find any smoking guns. Indeed, the charges facing Thaksin look more like tools to ensure he would be arrested upon entering the country and to freeze the nearly US$2 billion windfall he earned when his family sold Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in January 2006, the deal that initially sparked the conflict.

To put things in perspective, Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, who was recently assassinated and hailed as a democracy hero, faced much more solid corruption allegations. France, Poland, Spain and Switzerland all produced documents linking her to corrupt deals, and a Swiss court convicted her and her husband of money laundering in 2003.

By comparison, the charges against Thaksin are minor. He faces one charge of using his influence to help his wife Potjaman Shinawatra buy a prime piece of Bangkok real estate at a reduced price, and another of concealing assets in listed real estate company SC Asset, which is owned by his family.

"As Transparent As Crystal"

Of the two cases against Thaksin, the SC Asset case looks the most damaging. In 2000, Thaksin said he sold shares in several property companies,including SC Asset, to Win Mark, a firm incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. Thaksin then denied owning Win Mark, but investigators say they have found a document that shows Thaksin actually controlled the company. This appears to be the closest thing to a smoking gun that has been found. If it proves true, Thaksin could be hit with a large fine and a jail sentence.

Although an arrest warrant was issued in the case, the attorney general still hasn't indicted Thaksin. A decision is due on April 3.

Moreover, the Department of Special Investigations (DSI), does not have a solid track record investigating securities fraud cases. Two years ago, a company called Picnic was caught in an accounting fraud that ended up costing shareholders millions of dollars, but prosecutors failed to secure a conviction. In Thaksin's case, it's unclear if anyone lost money, and shareholders already knew that Thaksin's relatives controlled about 60 percent of the company (with Thaksin's concealed stake, that would've been closer to 80 percent).

"This is not so serious as it did not cause any damage to the public," said an aide to Thaksin. "He may have made a misleading statement, but it didn't damage anyone."

In the land case, the evidence against Thaksin is thinner. Back in July 2003, the Financial Institutions Development Fund, a central bank body created to rehabilitate the 26 financial institutions that went bust in the 1997 economic crisis, put up for sale a 30-rai plot on Ratchadaphisek Road. Previously, the FIDF had accepted closed bids for the land plot, but had received low prices. The July bid was designed to be open, a move that the central bank expected to bring more transparency to the process and higher prices.

During the first round of bidding in July, three listed companies refused to bid because the minimum price of 870 million baht was deemed too high.The land was again put up for bid in November. Pojaman Shinawatra won with a bid of 772 million baht, higher than 730 million bid from Land& Houses and 750 million bid from Noble Development, both companies listed on the Thai stock exchange.

Army investigators claim this price was below market prices, even though many central bank officials have defended the deal. Pridiyathorn Devakula, the former central bank governor who the coup-makers appointed as finance minister after the putsch, said the deal "was as transparent as crystal." Moreover, prosecutors have not brought malfeasance charges against central bank officials for selling land at a discounted price.

Pojaman's bid amounted to 58,000 baht per square wah, or 11.5 percent over the central bank's valuation. Investigators claim that the price would've jumped if the land was sold in 2004 instead of late 2003. However, in 2004 state-run broadcaster MCOT bought a 50-rai plot of land close to the Pojaman's plot of land for 55,000 baht per square wah, suggesting that Thaksin's wife did pay the market price. MCOT's land deal did not spark an outrage.

Thaksin is connected to all this through a clause in a corruption law that bans state officials or their spouses from entering into contractual agreements with the state. But legal experts say this clause was meant for people with direct control over a contract and does not connect the prime minister in this case.

"This law does not concern the prime minister," said Kanin from Chulalongkorn, who helped write the law. "Before the coup this case was never an issue, and everybody knew it wouldn't hold up in court. There were better cases if they wanted to go after Thaksin."

More cases coming

It's unclear if that will happen. The attorney general has started to reject cases from the AEC, so it's unclear how many more charges against Thaksin will see the light of day.

The AEC,which received extensive powers when the junta set it up, has vowed to bypass prosecutors and take the cases to court directly if the Attorney General refuses to cooperate. Still, that might prompt the PPP-dominated parliament to pass a law that dissolves the AEC. In bypassing the attorney general, PPP could claim the AEC is abusing its power in an effort to go after Thaksin.

"The only way to stop us is to enact a new law," said Kaewsan Athibodhi, secretary-general of the AEC. "They have the legal power to do that but I think it's impossible politically as it could lead to mass protests."

The AEC plans to bring four more cases related to the Shin sale to the attorney general next week. Kaewsan said he's confident he will get a conviction.

He also thought that Thaksin wouldn't be able to strike a compromise with the country's power brokers as exiled leaders have done in the past.

"I think the present situation is different because in the past they never had cases like this," Kaewsan said. "This is a process that can't be stopped."

Yet not everyone agrees.

"The cases against Thaksin presented so far are really an act of desperation," said Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "What really angered most people is the fact Thaksin sold Shin Corp and he didn't pay any tax. But of course that was actually legal. The coup leaders are not really getting to the heart of the matter."