Ex-Thai PM defends contentious trip to Japan

AP News
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Posted: Aug 23, 2011 6:55 AM
Ex-Thai PM defends contentious trip to Japan

Fugitive former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra defended his controversial visit to Japan on Tuesday, saying he wants to support the disaster-stricken country that helped his own people recover from a massive tsunami in 2004.

"I feel like I'm attached to what's happening there," he said of northeast Japan, which he plans to visit this week to view the damage caused by Japan's huge March 11 tsunami.

Thailand's opposition has criticized his visit and accused the country's foreign minister of aiding a fugitive by asking Tokyo to grant a visa to Thaksin, who is living in self-imposed exile to escape a two-year jail sentence for corruption.

"Coming to Japan is my own right," he said at one of two news conferences he held in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Japan was one of the biggest aid donors after an Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries, including Thailand.

Thaksin, 62, was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup. He remains a highly divisive figure in his homeland, where he is adored by the poor masses but distrusted by the established elite, including the military.

His ouster set off a sometimes violent struggle between his supporters and opponents that has left the country bitterly divided.

His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister in July, but many view Thaksin as the real power behind the new administration.

Thaksin acknowledged that he is extremely close to his younger sister. He said they maintain regular contact and he offers advice when she asks, but denied that his influence extends beyond that.

But his sister's rise to power could lead to Thaksin's eventual return under a general amnesty, which would enrage his opponents and could destabilize Thailand.

Analysts said trips like the one to Japan suggest Thaksin is eager to boost his image and legitimacy on the international stage.

"Acceptance from the global community undoubtedly is good PR for him, and he can use it as an example of his rightfulness from overseas when he attempts to win back domestic approval," said Somchai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Thammasat University.

Thaksin, who arrived in Japan on Monday, told reporters that he has no plans to return to Thailand unless there is reconciliation in the country's polarized political climate _ something he said was "not there."

"I don't want to fuel any more conflict," Thaksin said. "I just want to be part of the solution, not part of the problems."

He also said he was willing to do jail time if he actually committed a crime, but described the charges against him as politically motivated.

The previous Thai government, led by his political opponents, revoked Thaksin's passport and he has been using one issued by Montenegro.

Japanese officials said Tokyo granted Thaksin a visa after receiving a request for assistance from the Thai government. Thai officials explained that Thaksin's visit was to provide assistance to tsunami victims, said Masaru Satoh, an official at Japan's Foreign Ministry.

Japanese law states that people convicted of crimes with sentences of more than one year will be denied entry visas, but also stipulates that exceptions can be made if there is sufficient reason, Satoh said.

Thaksin's Japanese visa has stirred up controversy in Thailand, where former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party is trying to impeach Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul for allegedly aiding a fugitive by asking Tokyo to grant the visa.

Surapong has denied making such a request and is suing Abhisit for defamation.

Thaksin said his sister "had nothing to do" with his trip and offered a new explanation of his visa.

He said the previous government had sought to block his travels by asking governments around the world to deny him entry. When asked by Japan's Foreign Ministry, the new Thai government merely confirmed that such requests were no longer valid, he said.

"So the approval of the visa is totally the discretion of the Japanese government, not us," Thaksin said. "But definitely I'm grateful that they allowed me to come."

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Associated Press writers Mick Elmore and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok and Malcolm Foster in Tokyo contributed to this report.