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Thailand’s "Mussolini" headed for US?

Thailand's most wanted man invited to Washington, where enemies hope he will face extradition.

Thaksin Shinawatra
Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister of Thailand, Feb. 1, 2004, in Bangkok. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — The contempt of senior Thai figures for fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra, the country’s deposed former prime minister, can be measured in their World War II villain analogies.

Parliamentarians, leading pundits and the head of Thailand’s palace-advising Privy Council have all likened Thaksin to Adolph Hitler. This year, the foreign minister compared Thaksin to Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini. Thai courts have applied a more contemporary label: terrorist.

Despite his infamy, Thaksin is now the invited guest of legislators from the United States, Thailand’s most powerful ally. Though Thaksin’s enemies are aghast at the high-profile invite, they’re also praying America will smarten up and extradite him to a Thai prison cell.

On Thursday, Thaksin is slated to testify to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a federal agency monitoring global security and human rights. Of its members, nine hail from the House of Representatives, nine hail from the Senate and two others represent the U.S. State and Defense departments.

“The invitation stands,” said Neil Simon, a Helsinki Commission spokesman. “The caliber of our witnesses is strong. What they have to say doesn’t always make leaders around the world comfortable.”

Ousted in a 2006 military coup amid allegations of extreme corruption — and more than a few Hitler comparisons — Thaksin is a former telecommunications mogul turned globetrotting fugitive.

He is fleeing a two-year prison sentence for a conflict-of-interest land purchase. Thaksin now floats between Dubai, various African nations and Montenegro, where his investments have secured Montenegrin citizenship and a valid passport.

He is also suspected of financing the Red Shirts, an anti-establishment faction devoted to toppling the current ruling party and forcing new elections. In April and May, the group poured into Bangkok by the tens of thousands, peaking at an estimated 150,000, to ring off parts of the city with barbed wire, bamboo fencing and an amateur security force.

After masked men fired on troops during a nighttime army raid, the movement was crushed by an all-out army blitz that left more than 90 dead. Much of the group’s leadership remains in prison or in hiding. The government has yet to lift a “state of emergency” that military leaders justify with the suggestion of a possible armed insurgency.

In Thaksin’s invite, the Helsinki Commission notes a lawsuit from Thaksin’s political allies alleging current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva “is guilty of crimes of humanity perpetrated during the crackdown.”

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), the commission’s chairman, requests Thaksin’s perspective on improving Thailand’s “human rights situation.”

The invite is a boon to Thaksin’s international image rehab campaign, crafted by D.C.-based attorney Robert Amsterdam. His law firm has released an 80-page study on the Red Shirts spring crackdown, cast as the “Bangkok Massacres.” The firm promotes Thaksin and his followers as victims of “political persecution.”

To encourage the comparison, Thaksin’s team has circulated photos from his August visit with a smiling Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa.

But unlike Mandela, who spent 27 years in an island prison, Thaksin has taken pains to avoid confinement. His U.S. invitation to help legislators expose human rights abuse has conjured his own scandal-ridden five years in office.