Chasing Thaksin’s cash carries risk for Thai generals


BANGKOK: By freezing bank accounts holding $1.6 billion, the ruling generals of Thailand have hit Thaksin Shinawtra, the tycoon turned politician, where it hurts. But they also emboldened the former prime minister’s supporters and stirred sympathy among what were Thaksin’s most ardent detractors.

The reach for Thaksin’s wallet, many here say, could backfire.

Since he was removed from office in the September military coup, Thaksin has been banned from Thai politics for five years and charged, together with his wife and children, with corruption.

From his London home-in-exile, Thaksin reacted calmly to those developments. But the freezing of his assets seems to have stirred him into action.

Thaksin’s lawyer, Noppadol Pattama, said Tuesday that the former prime minister was considering returning to Thailand to fight the asset freeze. 

“I will tell you in a few days when he will come back,” Noppadol said at a news conference.

A Thai newspaper on Tuesday printed the numbers of 21 Thai bank accounts said to be where Thaksin and his family were holding much of their fortune. The money, held at Siam Commercial Bank and Bangkok Bank, amounts to 52 billion baht, or $1.6 billion, according to Thai officials.

Thaksin seems to be contemplating using connections abroad to put pressure on the junta.

His law firm in the United States, the firm of James Baker 3rd, a former U.S. secretary of state, issued a statement Monday decrying the asset freeze. It showed that “Thailand remains in the grip of military rule that is divorced from the rule of law,” the firm said.

“We have been authorized by Dr. Thaksin to vigorously evaluate all international options to protect his rights and interests,” said Michael Goldberg, a Thaksin lawyer.

If Thaksin does return to fight, he may find widespread support.

“The problem is that these sort of measures look as though the authorities are victimizing Thaksin – and that of course causes a wave of sympathy for him,” said Jon Ungpakorn, a former senator and a longtime critic of Thaksin.

Thaksin was a billionaire before he was prime minister, and for many Thais, the freezing of his assets appears unfair. Most of his cash comes from the sale of his telecommunications empire to a group of investors led by a Singapore government agency, a deal that was carried out on the open market.

“The investigations and the charges must be seen to be conforming to the rule of law,” Jon said. “The worst aspect of the present situation is that it’s the coup leaders who are making Thaksin look more attractive. People are forgetting about the excesses during the Thaksin era, the abuses of human rights, the clampdown of freedom of expression.

The increasingly unpopular military government in Thailand is meeting with more resistance than at any time since the coup. Several thousand protesters marched over the weekend, a display that seemed to rattle the generals.

Bhichit Rattakul, a former Bangkok governor, says he fears violence.“I am very worried there might be a confrontation between the mob that came out on the weekend and the military,” Bhichit said, adding that the move to freeze Thaksin’s assets was dangerous because it made him a “cornered dog” – aggrieved and aggressive.

One of Thaksin’s former advisers said that the freezing of the assets was part of a step-by-step process to dismantle and bury the party that Thaksin created, Thai Rak Thai.

“The idea is to plug any holes at all, socially, politically, financially, to make sure that Thai Rak Thai never comes back,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition that his name not be printed.

The decision two weeks ago to impose a five-year ban on politics for Thaksin along with more than 100 politicians affiliated with his party has created a group of disgruntled foot soldiers who now have more reason to campaign more vigorously on his behalf.

Not satisfied with freezing the 52 billion baht, the Assets Examination Committee, an anti-graft panel set up by the junta after the coup, said Tuesday that it had ordered the central bank to look into where the full proceeds of the sale of Thaksin’s telecommunications empire had gone. The sale netted 73.3 billion baht, raising the question of where more than 21 billion baht was.

Noppadol, Thaksin’s lawyer, hinted that Thaksin could have spent some of the money.“We have never intended to conceal or to hide or to dispose of assets for an illegal purpose,” Noppadol said in an interview. “But we truly believe we have the right to use or spend our own money in whatever way we can.

One of Thaksin’s potential purchases, Manchester City, a Premier League soccer team in England, may be put on hold. After the announcement that his assets were being frozen, the board of Manchester City said it was seeking clarification.

“Still interested in pursuing that transaction,” Noppadol said. “But we have to reassess the situation in the light of yesterday’s decision.

Asked whether the money for the purchase of the soccer club would have come from Thaksin’s bank accounts in Thailand as opposed to money stashed somewhere else, Noppadol said, “I think so.”




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