The Wandering Thaksin

Two months after Thai generals booted him out in a bloodless coup, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is on the move. He was spotted in Beijing a few weeks ago, and earlier this week reporters from the Oriental Daily News found him shopping in Hong Kong. As has been the case since the putsch, the once-outspoken Thaksin declined to give the paper a formal interview.

“I need a job because I'm unemployed now,” he quipped to a reporter at the Chinese-language daily.

That story tipped off the paparazzi, and suddenly the news agencies were tripping over each other for anything on the wandering Thaksin. Reuters reported that he shook hands with their reporter in a luxury hotel lobby and said, “I want to live my life peacefully with my family.” The Associated Press found him in a shopping mall, where he “spent a few minutes inside a luxury watch shop, but he didn't buy anything.”

The Thaksin craze continued when he arrived in Bali on Wednesday. Throngs of reporters and photographers waited for him at the airport, and after he ducked into a Mercedes, paparazzi on motorcycles reportedly sped after his four-car convoy before it turned into an upscale resort.

On Thursday, a dozen photographers caught up with Thaksin on the ninth hole of the luxurious Nirwana Golf Club in Bali. “I am fine, but hot,” he told them, mentioning that he plans to relax for a week before heading either to Shenzen or Beijing in China or Perth, Australia.

The Thaksin sightings have roiled the Bangkok press, which has circulated rumors for weeks that “Square Face”, as he is not-kindly known, wants to sneak back into Thailand via China and stage a comeback from Chiang Mai, his home town.

The reports have also raised the blood pressure of the ruling generals, who clearly don’t know how to answer the Thaksin question. It's not every day that reports of a 57-year-old man buying a zebra-print blouse for his wife in a Hong Kong shopping mall could put veteran military men on edge but then the generals have still not figured out anything to charge the twice-elected popular leader with or how, exactly, to keep him out of the country.

All along they have tried to sidestep the issue, vaguely saying he can return at an unspecified “appropriate” time.

A month ago, Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtat said that he could come back when martial law is lifted. Many people expected that to happen this week to coincide with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi. But the junta sat on its hands, and new Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont downplayed the issue of keeping martial law in place.

“This is not an urgent matter,” he told reporters after the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Surayud has faced near-daily questions on Thaksin, and his responses have revealed the junta's dilemma. On one hand, they must treat Thaksin like a criminal in order to justify the September 19 coup. On the other hand, they can't arrest him without finding sufficient evidence to bring him to trial.

On November 12, Surayud said “the most appropriate time” for Thaksin to return “is after we have a general election and a new government.” Since that would effectively bar Thaksin from running in the next “free and fair” election, Surayud backtracked a bit a few days later, saying the government would “welcome” Thaksin to present his case on why he should be allowed back in the country.

“The government hasn’t come up with a clear solution for dealing with Thaksin, so the sight of him running around in neighboring countries creates waves in Thailand’s political scene,” said Somchai Pakpatwiwat, a political scientist at Thammasat University. “Thaksin has support among the grassroots, and in the military and the bureaucracy. He has the potential to be around for years to come. So the sight of him might prompt his network to move into action once martial law is lifted.”

Noppadol Pattama, Thaksin's lawyer, has insisted that his client has no intention of returning to Bangkok or the political scene anytime soon. But he also says that is by no means an admission that he has done anything wrong.

“Thaksin has the right to defend himself in court,” he told reporters last week. “He has prepared and is ready for that, even though no direct accusation has yet to be made against him. The matters are just allegations.”

Indeed, allegations are flying left and right, as they have for at least a year. But a slam-dunk case has yet to materialize, and so far it's unclear if enough evidence has been gathered to make any of the charges stand up in court.

Even the government's latest bombshell that Thaksin's kids must pay millions in taxes on their $1.9 billion Shin Corp stock sale to Temasek Holdings may not stick.

“It's very easy to impose charges on someone, but it's more difficult if you want to win the case,” Kaewsan Athibodhi, secretary-general of the junta-appointed Assets Examination Committee, which is investigating corruption allegations, said in an interview.

“The investigation is going very well,” he added. “Within a month, maybe we will have a chance to get a charge on Thaksin. But we cannot say for sure because things have to go according to a legal process.”

Kaewsan said the charges are likely to stem from a controversy surrounding the government’s 2003 sale of a prime spot of Bangkok real estate to Pojaman Shinawatra, Thaksin’s wife, for 772 million baht. Thai law prohibits state officials who have supervisory, regulatory, or investigatory power from entering into business deals with the state, and legally Pojaman and Thaksin could both be held liable for conflict of interest, he added.

But Noppadol has already held a press briefing to defend the sale, saying that Thaksin had no such power over the Financial Institutions Development Fund, which sold the land to his wife. Moreover, officials from the central bank, which manages the fund, also said the sale was legal and claimed they had received clearance from the state’s corruption watchdog before signing off on the deal.

The struggle to come up with solid evidence to nail Thaksin has made the public restless and is taking its toll on the graft busters. Kaewsan said that his team has resisted pleas to speed up its investigation, and called on other government agencies to do their part exposing Thaksin’s misdeeds.

“We’ll go as quickly as we can under the law,” he said. “I only get pressure from reading the newspapers everyday, but it’s bullshit to ask 11 people to uncover all the corruption that has been going on for five years. It’s very much bullshit. I think the committee has a limited job; we are just one instrument in the orchestra.”

To make matters worse, the generals have opened themselves up to criticism after giving themselves a pay raise and taking plum jobs on the boards of state enterprises. Former army chief and one-time prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who also served as Thaksin’s defense minister for a period, blasted the junta leaders for the board appointments, claiming that people would start to think the military took over simply to line their pocketbooks. He also said that Thaksin should be allowed to return and be placed under house arrest, a move that would inevitably invite comparisons to Burmese opposition leader Aang San Suu Kyi—something the generals will try to avoid at all costs.

Junta leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin fired back at Chavalit immediately, claiming he had a “hidden agenda” and was upset his own men weren’t promoted for their role in staging the coup.

Everyone met for a face-saving dinner to clear the air, as both men are close to Prem Tinsulanonda, head of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Privy Council, who is seen as pulling the stings of the coup leaders. Prem has desperately tried to legitimize the new government. Last month he compared Thaksin to Adolf Hitler and this week he likened Surayud to Winston Churchill. That was good for a laugh but did little to help the new government.

As the country’s new leaders bicker, Thaksin, for the moment, can keep his mouth shut and enjoy his jaunts around Asia, knowing that that his eventual homecoming will command headlines throughout the world. And should the junta eventually prove unpopular, Thaksin can dream of a hero’s welcome.

Historically, the return of exiled leaders to Thailand has wreaked havoc. In 1976, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn—ousted in 1973 after a bloody crackdown on student protests—stepped off a plane from Singapore in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. Even though Thanom had tacit palace support to come back, students and civic groups protested his return, leading to another siege on Thammasat University that left anywhere from 40 to several hundred students dead.

Thaksin’s return would surely spark new protests, both for and against. For now, they are hoping Thaksin continues to buy blouses and play golf while they muster up a legitimate reason to arrest him and put him on trial.

“The military rulers are playing for time,” said Prudhisan Jumbala, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. “And if they are playing for time, that means Thaksin has space to maneuver… Given the weight of Thaksin, his return is very complicated, and they worry it could be explosive.”