The British Lion Turns Lamb

The sudden decision of the British government to cancel ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s visa when he was out of the country was extraordinary. It has a nasty smell about it which suggests either that the British government is hoping for some business quid pro quo or that its diplomats in Bangkok are in thrall to the monarchists, deluded democrats and assorted thugs behind the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

Britain is well known for being host to many controversial persons wanted in their home countries for alleged crimes. They currently include a large contingent of rich Russians headed by one-time oligarch and former friend of Vladimir Putin, Boris Berezovsky. In the past they have included another former Thai Prime minister, Chatichai Choonhavan after his overthrow by the palace-approved military coup of 1991.

In earlier times the British helped democratic leader Pridi Panamyong escape into exile from the clutches of military strongman Pibul Songgram who organized the 1947 coup. (In a farcical trial Pridi was subsequently convicted of plotting regicide and spent the rest of his life in exile in France).

More recent Asian refugees have included such controversial figures as Malaysian banker Lorrain Osman, kept for years at public expense on remand in London while he fought, and eventually lost, the longest extradition case in British history. Indeed there are so many political refugees in the UK that its capital has become known to some as Londonistan.

So what is it that has induced London to pull Thaksin’s visa when he was out of the country and issue statements to airlines not to allow him on flights to the UK? The withdrawal of an existing visa and the demand to airlines seems to have been deliberately designed to humiliate Thaksin.

The British so-called defenders of democracy seem to have forgotten that Thaksin was overthrown in a coup and that his supporters won a subsequent election that the Bangkok elite declines to accept because it threatens their status and power to exploit the poorer classes, notably those in the countryside whose only political weapon is the ballot box.

It is well known that when in office Thaksin abused his powers and in a more perfect world should be held accountable. However, only the blindly ignorant or the intellectually dishonest could imagine that Thaksin and his wife were prosecuted for any other than political reasons. His case is not dissimilar to that of Anwar Ibrahim, jailed by Mahathir’s stooge judges to remove him from the political arena.

The British move provide is certainly good cheer for those who want to hand power to an unelected elite headed by a king of advanced age and an otherwise dysfunctional royal family. Quite what motivated it is unclear. British diplomats in Asia have a reputation for living in a world of their own, ignoring their own country’s values as they seek to ingratiate themselves with local elites.

Noted one veteran British correspondent with many years experience in the region: “They are stand-offish towards those (including journalists) they like to think beneath them but grovel before people they believe have status. Few have any backbone”.

But the move cannot have done much to endear Britain to its large Thai community. Many of those doubtless oppose Thaksin but London’s place as a second home, a comfortable refuge, for many Thais out of favor at home, will surely be damaged by this move. It may not matter much to jobs-for-life British diplomats but it will do scant good to a London economy already reeling from the collapse of financial institutions.

In the Thaksin case it must also be asked whether the British government would have dared do this if he still owned the Manchester City football club, which he sold earlier this year to Arab interests from the Gulf. It will not be surprising if mercenary considerations are not eventually found to have driven the British decision, whether the driving force came from London or from its representatives in Bangkok. After all this is a government which abused its own powers and trashed the rule of law to shield British Aerospace from prosecution for corrupt payments on sales to Saudi Arabia.

That at any rate makes more sense than imagining that Queen Elizabeth intervened at the behest of King Bhumibol, or that British diplomats honestly believe in the independence of the Thai judiciary in cases involving prominent politicians.