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.
By keeping Thaksin on the run, he remains a “fugitive” that “helps the government portray the ‘red shirts’ as illegitimate by association,” said political professor Kevin Hewison, director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The government appears to crank up its Thaksin hunt each time his supporters become active, Hewison said.
Imprisoning Thaksin, he said, would just stir even more problems for the government. “He'd likely become an imprisoned symbol for opposition,” Hewison said. “Do they want that? No. He is less of a threat, and a declining star for the red shirt supporters, if he is at a distance.”
Authorities likely set the stage for Thaksin’s escape themselves, Ferrara said, by allowing the ex-premier to attend the 2008 Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing. Thaksin was then on trial for fraud and a guilty verdict was widely assumed. Judges granted him leave, Ferrara said, expecting him to flee.
He has acquired up to six passports – secured from countries including Montenegro and Nicaragua, his political backers said – to traverse the globe and evade capture. Keeping up the appearance of a vigorous chase has helped the Thai government cement Thaksin’s “fugitive” image, Ferrara said.
“Thaksin can only be discredited as a ‘fugitive’ if someone is actually pursuing him,” he said.
“Otherwise he would be merely an ‘exiled politician,’ something that has a much more favorable connotation because it hints at the possibility that the government might either not have the goods on Thaksin or the stomach to lock him up.”