Thaksin on a mission to humiliate Thai government

AP News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2009 11:57 AM

Thailand's fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has spent much of the past three years roaming the globe, shopping for diamonds in Africa, golfing at Asian resorts _ and humiliating the government from a distance.

After stirring up sometimes violent passions from afar among his supporters and opponents inside Thailand, the deposed leader has now entangled his homeland in a diplomatic imbroglio with neighboring Cambodia, which this past week named him a special adviser on economic matters.

The idea of Thaksin being made welcome by Cambodia's mercurial Prime Minister Hun Sen has jangled nerves in the Thai capital. Thailand already has a nasty dispute with its neighbor over border territory, which has led to several small but deadly clashes over the past year and a half.

Now Thaksin _ who was ousted in a 2006 coup after being accused of corruption and insulting the country's constitutional monarch _ may have found his launchpad for a political comeback.

"Thaksin is on a new offensive. This is a calculated campaign to undermine this government and to change governments," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "He wants to retake what he sees as his legitimate right, which is to have another election that he believes he will win."

For the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Cambodia's action is a slap in the face it feels compelled to respond to, calling it "interference in Thailands domestic affairs."

From cyberspace, Thaksin tweeted to his 40,000 Twitter followers that Abhisit's recall of the Thai ambassador was a "childish overreaction."

"I'm asking permission from all Thai people to advise the Cambodian government ... until I have a chance to serve you again," he tweeted separately, calling his new job "an honor."

Thaksin is thought to currently be in Dubai.

He has not indicated if he plans to live in Cambodia or spelled out how he will perform his new dual role as personal adviser to Hun Sen and an economic adviser to his government.

Thaksin, a tycoon turned politician, was elected by landslide wins to serve two terms as prime minister from 2001 to 2006. He retains huge popularity among his rural poor power base who have staged frequent rallies calling for his pardon and return to power. But he is reviled by the educated urban elite, who led months of street protests that led to the coup and again when his allies briefly took power.

Efforts to cut him down to size have failed. Courts have sentenced him to two years in prison for corruption while in office and dissolved his political party, while his Thai assets worth $2.25 billion have been frozen and his Thai personal and diplomatic passports canceled.

Britain, Germany and other countries have barred Thaksin, but there were no shortage of others willing to accept his investment offers and hand over new passports, including Nicaragua and Montenegro.

Thaksin posts photos of his travels on Facebook. Recent snapshots show him golfing in Brunei and Dubai, inspecting diamond mines in South Africa, sipping coffee in a private jet and meeting prime ministers or presidents on trips to Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and the Maldives.

Investment in diamond and gold sectors have led Thaksin to Liberia, Uganda and Swaziland, prompting one tweet in August after negative headlines at home: "I've checked several times that my diamonds are not blood diamonds. Don't worry."

Thaksin's new relationship with Hun Sen is bound to revive speculation of private business deals between the two while he was prime minister.

No such ethical doubts dog current Prime Minister Abhisit, but he face the bigger headache of how to calm the political maelstrom around Thaksin.

"Thailand is now in the international spotlight and its leader has been discredited," said Sompop Manarungsan, a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. "The strategy Thaksin is using, I call it 'crashing.' He is destroying everything in his path to reach his goal."