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Thailand's ex-premier is on the run. And he wants the Twitterati to know about it.
BANGKOK, Thailand – To hear the Thailand’s ruling government tell it, Thaksin Shinawatra is the kingdom’s most meddlesome fugitive.
Since fleeing Thailand last year, the self-exiled, billionaire ex-premier has zig-zagged the globe while stirring anti-establishment supporters from afar. He has incessantly needled the ruling party through in-country proxies, sarcastic Tweet messages and Skype video calls, broadcast at political pep rallies that sometimes turn violent.
His sanctuaries have included Hong Kong, London, Liberia and Dubai. Each new hideout spurs new extradition threats from the government. But if Thaksin pulls off a recent promise to visit Cambodia — right in Thailand’s backyard — the government’s repeated promises to catch him may begin to appear hollow.
Many experts already suspect authorities prefer Thaksin as a fugitive rather than a prisoner.
“The best way to diminish Thaksin’s popularity is not to make him a martyr, but rather to allow him to make a fool of himself via Skype as often as he wishes,” said Federico Ferrara, assistant political science professor at the National University of Singapore.
Imprisoning Thaksin, he said, would be “highly destabilizing,” sparking huge rallies and endless requests for release.
Thaksin has repeatedly promised supporters he’ll someday come home to Thailand. This week, the Thai government was rankled by his plans to visit the neighborhood.
At an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit this week, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen went on the offense for Thaksin and publicly offered to build him a Cambodian home.
Moreover, he pondered hiring him as a political advisor and even compared him to Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and political prisoner in Burma. Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup after five years of rule, is also a “victim” of politics, Hun Sen said.
These slights were widely interpreted as payback for an ongoing Thai-Cambodia land ownership dispute that has riled fierce nationalism on both sides and occasionally turned bloody. Bitterness between the countries runs even deeper, dating back to alleged Thai government sympathies to communist Khmer Rogue leaders who led mass killings in Cambodia during the 1980s.
“I don’t want (Hun Sen) to be a victim or a pawn for somebody that undermines the interests of this country,” said Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at a press conference. “I’m sure that when he’s better informed, he’ll change his mind.”
But Thaksin now insists he’s Cambodia-bound. He even Tweeted his thanks to Hun Sen, who has assured the ex-premier that Cambodia will disregard extradition requests.
Actually extraditing and jailing Thaksin would surely enrage his supporters, a largely rural, working-class faction known as the “red shirts.” Many of them believe Thaksin was the first Thai politician to challenge old-money elites and fight on their behalf.
The powers behind the coup that toppled Thaksin in 2006, however, insist he is incorrigibly corrupt. Last year, courts sentenced him to two years in prison for using political power to secure a Bangkok land deal for his wife.