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Thailand Not A Happy Place For Thaksin Shinawatra

Thailand Not A Happy Place For PM Thaksin Shinawatra


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's American-educated prime minister thought he could use capitalist tools and democratic elections to bask in a family sale netting 1.8 billion dollars, tax-free, while crushing demands that he resign.

Reaction was swift. This majority Buddhist "Land of Smiles" is no longer a happy place.

Opponents insist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tried to avoid censure over the huge sale when, on February 24, he declared a snap election for April 2, only 14 months after being re-elected.

In response, the three biggest opposition parties announced on Monday (February 27) night an unprecedented boycott of the polls.

Before the boycott, the populist prime minister was expected to, yet again, be re-elected albeit suffering a smaller majority of parliamentarians for his wealthy Thai Rak Thai party, which translates as "Thais Love Thais".

With the boycott, only Thaksin's party, and some tiny parties, could take all Parliament.

Anti-Thaksin protests would then continue, his opponents vowed.

Officials worry tension could erupt in riots or confrontation with the military -- America's Non-NATO Ally.

Tens of thousands of anti-Thaksin protestors have staged peaceful weekly rallies in downtown Bangkok.

They threaten their biggest street demo on Sunday (March 5).

Portrayed in the opposition's wildest posters with a painted-on Hitler moustache, the clean-shaven Thaksin (pronounced: "TAK-sin") says he did nothing illegal when his family sold its stake in Shin Corp., a telecommunications empire, for 73.3 billion baht (1.8 billion US dollars) without paying taxes.

"I have performed my duty to the best of my abilities," Thaksin told reporters on Monday (February 27), shrugging off the election boycott.

"I admit having helped a thief to rule and cheat the country," said a dismayed Sanoh Thienthong, 72, after leading his small Wang Nam Yen faction to quit Thaksin's ruling coalition.

"Everyone should join forces to oust Thaksin. In ancient times, we would not only oust him, but also hang him," Sanoh, a former chief adviser to Thaksin, told a cheering street crowd on Monday (February 27), the Bangkok Post reported.

Thaksin nabbed 19 million votes in his February 2005 re-election.

He initially achieved power in a landslide victory in January 2001, and became Thailand's first elected prime minister to complete a four-year term.

Thaksin's enemies lament he intentionally dodged taxes when his family's Bangkok-based telecommunications empire was sold in January 2006 to the Singapore government's investment wing, Temasek Holdings.

The sale gave Thaksin's family, especially his son and daughter, most of the profit. Upon becoming prime minister, Thaksin had transferred many assets to them.

Any complaints should be aimed at changing the law, and not at people who use it to their own advantage, Thaksin and his followers say.

Former Major-General Chamlong Srimuang now helps lead the anti-Thaksin rallies, sparking worries about Chamlong's role heading a 1992 pro-democracy protest against a military dictator.

The crowd was met by the military, and clashes left more than 50 civilians dead in Bangkok's streets, and more than 150 missing.

In March 2005 Chamlong, a married-but-celibate vegetarian, started leading his small, Buddhist, Santi Asoke sect-based Dharma Army party in anti-alcohol marches.

Chamlong wants to stop Thai Beverages Plc, popular maker of Mekong whisky and Chang beer, listing on the Thai stock market because, he said, drunkenness is bad for Buddhists.

Anti-Thaksin forces want to cleanse Thai politics and update the country's constitution, which was repeatedly trashed and rewritten during the past 70 years.

The opposition's Democrat, Chart Thai and Mahachon parties now hope to broaden their base beyond the middle-class, the media, academics, and others.

Thaksin said he is victim of a "smear campaign" by an undemocratic "mob rule".

He named several opposition politicians whose families allegedly used similar legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

Many Thais grew cynical toward Thaksin when newspapers documented an offshore account in the British Virgin Islands, and transfers of shares to his children.

Thaksin, a former police officer, received a Master's degree in Criminal Justice at Eastern Kentucky University, and a PhD in Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

He was a deputy prime minister and a foreign minister in previous governments.
Several weeks ago, Thaksin arranged five days of around-the-clock, nationwide televised coverage, broadcasting himself giving cash from his pockets, and promises of other help, to impoverished people in the countryside.

The unusual "reality TV" was cheered by the poor, but blasted by critics as shameless hype.

*************

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

-ENDS-

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