It is Thailand’s latest political puzzler – a strange little book about the former prime minister that may or may not be what it seems.
Thaksin Shinawatra is in London, his home since he was ousted in a coup last September, watching and perhaps waiting for his moment as the generals in power lead the country through an exhausting series of watershed moments.
Next Sunday, in the latest of these, Thailand will vote on a new constitution that would pave the way for an election, tentatively set for November.
On Tuesday, a Thai court issued arrest warrants for Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, when they failed to appear to face corruption charges involving a land sale. The ruling means they would be taken into custody if they return to Thailand, although their lawyer said they have no plans to do so now. The court said it would consider extradition proceedings if they do not appear by Sept. 25, but experts said any such proceedings would be long and complicated.It was in London that a young Thai writer says she wheedled and wept until Thaksin granted her seven hours of interviews for a chatty book about his life and moods that she says could have been called “Lonely Thaksin.”The book, published here this month, has infuriated the jumpy generals, who seem to see Thaksin’s stealthy hand everywhere, including in this seemingly inoffensive portrait of a mild-mannered political retiree.
If the book really was her independent enterprise, Thaksin got very lucky. It portrays him just as he might have portrayed himself if he had orchestrated the whole thing.
“Although he tries to remain light-hearted, deep down in his eyes, I feel his hidden pain,” writes the author, Sunisa Lertpakawat, 32.
It is Thaksin through the looking glass, the improbably unadventurous life of a powerful man, a chimera who still haunts the junta.
The book is studded with charming, glossy family photos of Thaksin practicing his golf swing, shopping in a supermarket, feeding his son birthday cake, riding a bicycle, buying a pizza, looking at fish in an aquarium, smiling at the seaside.
“You are interviewing a poor guy today,” says the telecommunications tycoon who has just spent $162 million to buy the British soccer club Manchester City and thousands of dollars more to throw a party for 8,000 of its fans in a city square.
“I have some money in my savings accounts, but …” he pauses, according to the book. “By the way, I think I can manage it.”
One twist to the story is that the author is a lieutenant in the army, working as a reporter for an army-run television station. She said she produced the book on her own time, secretly, anticipating trouble. And she got it.
As soon as they found out, her commanders halted distribution of the book after its first run of 4,000 copies and yanked her from her job. Her offense, technically, was extending a three-day leave to 21 days, and she has since preemptively tendered her resignation.
The coup leader, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, personally ordered an investigation and, according to Sunisa, called her in for a one-on-one talking to.
“You-know-who is the hand behind this publication,” one official told a Thai newspaper, treating it almost as a matter of national security.The generals have reacted this way to Thaksin’s phantom before. They have tried to suppress news about him by, for example, ordering television stations not to run interviews with him, and at one point they stopped talking on their cellular telephones for fear he might be listening in.
“A bunch of panicky people,” The Nation newspaper called them, dancing to Thaksin’s tune “every time he feels like getting up to a little mischief.”
In an interview, Sunisa insisted that she acted on her own and that she had not been in touch with Thaksin since her return from London. She said the photographs were given to her at no cost by his son, Panthongtae, who is a photographer and whom she interviewed separately for four hours at a Thai restaurant in London.
Sunisa, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science, is a puzzle to those who have met her, appearing naïve and calculating at the same time.“I think after age 30 I should have some security for the future,” she said in explaining her project. “At first I thought I would open a dog spa because I love dogs. But if a publishing company can support me, I can write, and I have ideas.”
She pursued Thaksin for her first book, she said, because “I think Thaksin’s life is interesting, and because I am nobody, and it is hard to get people’s attention.”
The generals obliged her in the latter, and last week Sunisa was on the evening news, book in hand, weeping over her treatment at their hands. She is already thinking about her next book, which she plans to title, “Sunisa, Who Are You?”
“People are interested in me now,” she said.Few have managed to buy the book but everyone has at least one theory about it, said Orapin Visitsophon, a professor of drama and the wife of a retired military officer.“People look at her appearance, and she looks innocent,” Orapin said. “Maybe she herself wanted to show off, wanted to push up her reputation. She’s pretty, she’s smart, maybe she wants to make herself a star.
“For a Thai woman to step out on her own this way, she said, whether or not she had a rich backer, is “brave, very brave.”
Sunisa said she spent about $3,000 on her foray, flying to London on a budget airline and staying with a friend. Shivering in the summer cold, she said, she staked out Thaksin’s serviced apartment for hours until he appeared.
“My heart was beating really fast, my hands were shaking, my brain was only thinking about the first words that I should say to him,” she writes in the book. “I picked up my backpack, grabbed a video camera and ran towards a deep-blue Rolls-Royce.”
A man in a blue suit and black leather shoes emerges, and she says to him, “Mr. Thaksin, I would like to interview you for my first pocket book. I travelled a long way from Thailand and used up all my savings for this project.”Improbably, for someone who has avoided the Thai press, he says yes.
Thaksin occupies himself with golf, karaoke and shopping for handbags for his wife and two daughters. He likes to hop the channel to France to enjoy “real wine and homemade food.” He has booked a class at a golf school in Miami “to check his swing.” He also has eight cellular telephones and 20 SIM cards.His frequent companion is a Thai pop singer known as Lydia, whom he said he invited to shop for clothes with him in Japan. “She is like another daughter to him,” according to his son.
As any traveler far from home knows, good haircuts can be a problem. “The hairdresser in London cut it either too short or too funky,” Thaksin confided.“Sometimes he made me look like a teenager.”So he began flying his personal barber from Bangkok to Hong Kong or Singapore whenever he traveled there.
But the hardships of exile have a way of smoothing themselves out. In recent months Thaksin has settled on a Spanish hairdresser at a Toni & Guy salon in London who manages to get his haircuts just right.