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She's Back! Thaksin's Wife Returns

She's Back! Thaksin's Wife Returns

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Submitting to "her surrender" and challenging Bangkok's coup-installed junta, fugitive Pojaman Shinawatra returned to Thailand on Tuesday (January 8) to defend her role in alleged corruption committed when her husband was prime minister.

By choosing to return home, she faces possible imprisonment. Her husband, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, remained in self- exile abroad.

Mr. Thaksin is defying arrest warrants, issued by the ruling junta, after the military toppled him 15 months ago in this Buddhist- majority Southeast Asian nation.

The billionaire couple, and their three adult children, are among Thailand's wealthiest families.

They are locked in a dramatic and dangerous struggle for survival against the military which used tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees to overthrow Mr. Thaksin in a bloodless coup on Sept. 19, 2006.

The junta froze most of the family's assets, but a nationwide parliamentary election on Dec. 23 allowed a new pro-Thaksin ally, the People Power Party (PPP), to score the most seats.

The junta still controls Thailand but is widely perceived to be fearful of Mr. Thaksin's possible return to power, and his influence on the PPP's combative, streetwise leader, Samak Sundaravej.

"The return of...Pojaman is meant for her surrender to the courts of justice, willingly and voluntarily, to fight charges and prove her innocence in accordance with the judicial proceedings and the rule of law," Mr. Thaksin said in Thai language in a statement published on Tuesday (January 8) explaining his wife's return.

"I do not want to be a cause of conflict among fellow Thai citizens, which can exacerbate the problems facing our country.

"I pledge before every fellow citizen that I will return to Thailand at an opportune time, to prove my innocence and that of my family's, in accordance with the judicial proceedings and the rule of law," the former prime minister said without giving a date for his return.

Mr. Thaksin's wife, Pojaman, escalated the political tension by suddenly flying into Bangkok from abroad on Tuesday (January 8) after being warned she would be immediately arrested, charged and probably allowed to post bail.

She landed at Bangkok's new, corruption-plagued Suvarnabhumi International Airport -- built during Mr. Thaksin's administration -- where she was greeted by police who handed her arrest papers.

They whisked the tight-lipped, smiling, Mrs. Pojaman to the Supreme Court and onto the Department of Special Investigation for two immediate hearings, based on two separate cases.

One involves allegations she used her husband's position to purchase expensive government land in Bangkok at a reduced rate.

The second case involves alleged irregularities in a Bangkok stock exchange listing.

She was quickly released after reportedly posting two separate bails totaling six million baht (180,000 U.S. dollars).

The Supreme Court banned her from leaving Thailand or interfering with the justice system.

Thais are nervously gripped by the saga of the Thaksin family, versus the junta.

Many people blame the military for staging a coup which crippled Thailand's economy, while failing to stop an insurgency by Islamist Malay-Thai separatists in the south, which has killed 2,800 people on all sides since 2004.

Apparently the junta wrongly assumed that their tribunals, and relentless demonizing of Mr. Thaksin -- while projecting the coup's altruism -- was enough to convince most Thais to vote against the PPP in the December election.

With the victorious PPP allied to Mr. Thaksin, and now planning a new coalition government, Mrs. Pojaman's return tosses a political wildcard into the mix.

She is perceived as politically cunning and able to make backroom deals with her allies and opponents, based on her family's wealth, clout among some in high-society, and potential to offer future rewards.

The junta was expected to step down after an elected coalition forms, possibly on Feb. 7.

Much of the Parliament's House of Representatives vote split on economic and geographic lines.

Impoverished rural Thais in the north and northeast favored welfare polices offered by the PPP, continuing Mr. Thaksin's strategy of cheap health care and easy credit.

The urban elite and middle class tended to vote against the PPP, mostly because they feared the party would allow Mr. Thaksin to escape corruption allegations, and unleash his administration's style which they condemned as allegedly monopolistic, illegal, unethical, and enforced by litigation threats and extrajudicial killings.

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

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

ENDS

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