Running out of places to hide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2009, 12:00am

Ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has always felt comfortable in Hong Kong. In the tough months after Thailand's generals forced him from power in September 2006, the city was a particularly important bolt-hole.

But Hong Kong has offered him something else - it is close to the nation he once led.

Staying in Hong Kong's top hotels during his usually low-key trips, Thaksin would meet Thai politicians by the dozen, plotting strategy and funding and trying to keep friendly coalitions together.

He used the city, too, for meetings with Washington-based lobbyists and publicity strategists as he plotted how to stay in the political limelight.

Being ethnically Chinese, Thaksin has often told aides he feels at home in Hong Kong. When he divorced his wife, Pojaman - a move still widely seen as strategic, rather than heartfelt - the couple chose to do it at the Thai consulate in Hong Kong.

But the events of last week suggest that the city may not be Thaksin's bolt-hole for too much longer. He is on the run from a two-year prison sentence imposed in Thailand, and Britain and Japan will not give him fresh visas. Hong Kong is not at that point yet, but the situation has suddenly become more complicated as his opponents attempt to draw Beijing into the fray.

Thaksin may also have invited trouble by his recent actions. His plan to give a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Central last Monday prompted a swift response from Thailand's new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva - a long-time adversary. Days before Thaksin was due to give his speech, Mr Abhisit expressed his concerns and raised the prospect of talking to Beijing about his extradition - having him returned to his home country. Thailand has an extradition treaty with China but not yet with Hong Kong - although one is draft form.

'We will look into any possible legal channels,' Mr Abhisit said. Thaksin promptly postponed the speech at the FCC. He has given press conferences in Hong Kong in the past, but not since he was sentenced in October on abuse-of-power charges related to a land deal he did while he was in power in 2003.

In recent months he has taken to making live phone-in 'appearances' at rallies of his supporters across Thailand but never reveals from where he is calling.

Meanwhile, it is true that Beijing has always got on well with Thaksin - when he left Thailand for the last time, it was to attend last summer's Olympic Games - but those ties could carry a cost in its dealings with future Thai governments.

'By playing the China card, Abhisit is sending a very strong warning to Thaksin,' said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. 'It does help feed the perception that Mr Thaksin is running out of options and running out of time.'

When Thaksin announced last Sunday that he would not fly to Hong Kong to give the speech, he said: 'I did not want my presence to affect bilateral relations.'

Phongthep Thepkanjana, a spokesman in Thailand for Thaksin, said his boss still felt comfortable visiting Hong Kong in future and they had received no warnings from Beijing or the city's government.

Thaksin has arranged to deliver his speech via a satellite hook-up at the FCC on Thursday. Giving his speech this way will be less provocative than doing so in person.

If Thaksin intended to cause the maximum pain to Mr Abhisit, he could have not chosen a better time. Last weekend saw Mr Abhisit host the nine fellow heads of government of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the bloc's annual summit. Thaksin's move was already hogging the headlines as Mr Abhisit engaged in his first major international outing.

Given that Mr Abhisit has not been elected Thailand's leader (his Democrat Party forged a ruling coalition after Thai courts disbanded a Thaksin-friendly government in December), the summit was widely seen as a cornerstone of efforts to bolster Mr Abhisit's credibility.

While the FCC had issued a long-standing invitation for Thaksin to speak, club president Ernst Herb confirmed the date for the speech was worked out by 'mutual arrangement'.

Even if, as it now appears, Mr Abhisit has not emerged the winner from this episode, the timing of their skirmish was equally bad for Thaksin. Thailand's political salons are filled with talk that he is struggling to fund opposition operations in the way he once could. That Mr Abhisit was able to form a government with the defection of a few of Thaksin's former allies shows the difficulties he is facing.

He remains immensely wealthy, though not quite as rich as many believed. Just how much money he has is difficult to estimate, but he is reported to have taken a hit from the global financial crisis. Thaksin's nemesis, Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, has said he believes the core of Thaksin's wealth is tied up in the US$2.3 billion frozen in Thai bank accounts since the coup.

One asset still listed in the family ledger is the three-storey, 3,313 sq ft home at 19 King's Park Hill in Ho Man Tin. Bought three months ago in his youngest daughter's name for HK$45 million, it has been largely deserted. If Thaksin had been eyeing the development as a long-term home, that plan may now be considerably more risky than before. Steadily, Thailand's royal, military and old-money establishment is tightening the noose.

This is an edited version of an article which ran in the South China Morning Post on March 8