A diplomatic stumble?

When Thaksin Shinawatra arrived in Singapore recently, he got a rather shabby, pale-pink-carpet kind of reception. That was not what he had become used to. There was no 21-gun salute, guard of honour, presidential banquet, address to parliament or meeting with the prime minister. But, after all, Mr Thaksin was on a purely 'private' visit as the deposed head of the Thai government, part of the world tour in which he has been circling his former domain.

However, he did meet Deputy Prime Minister Shanmugam Jayakumar and gave media interviews which have enraged the Thai junta and much of the Thai press.

The visit raises some impertinent diplomatic and practical questions for Mr Thaksin and for the Thai junta, as well as for Singapore.

For Mr Thaksin, his visits to Singapore, Indonesia, mainland China, Hong Kong and Japan hardly dispel the idea that he has given up politics.

In a pathetically soft interview with CNN, he claimed that 'enough is enough', saying he was retiring from politics. He presented himself as a hard-done-to figure who had only tried to 'serve the people' - so that it was difficult to see him as a ruthless political leader or even a billionaire. Mr Thaksin talked of his 'belief' in the kindness of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and of the national 'spirit' and tradition of amnesty.

But he was not pressed on what forgiveness he was seeking and for which misdeeds. He added that if he were allowed to return to Thailand, his strongest desire was to rebuild national harmony and end the political crisis. His wish to do this 'outside the political arena' was rightly seen in Thailand as a signal that the former leader is not finished as a political force.

For the military now running Thailand, questions remain about whether those in power are competent enough to run a government. They took over claiming that they had to rescue Thailand from Mr Thaksin's corrupt influence.

Yet, several months on, they have failed to uncover evidence of corruption. This may be down to their own failings, or the collusion of the bureaucracy since there are plenty of suspicions of wrong-doing.

Korn Chatikavanij, who used to be head of JP Morgan's Thailand operations until becoming a Democrat Party politician three years ago, has raised a devastating string of questions about alleged illegalities and shady practices concerning the Shin Corp-Temasek 'deal of the century'. Tortrakul Yommanak, a director of Airports of Thailand, claimed that there was 'massive corruption' during the construction of Bangkok's new airport that opened last September.

The new rulers have also dented foreign confidence in their ability to run the economy, with a series of badly-thought-out measures on capital inflow and foreign ownership rules that led to howls of protest.

Mr Thaksin's visit has put the spotlight on Singapore again and its diplomatic competence. Did officials blunder in allowing him to visit?

Absolutely not, say western diplomats. After all, Mr Thaksin's status is a grey area. In the eyes of many countries, he is still the legitimately elected leader of Thailand, as he has won two elections in the last five years - and a third last April which was declared illegal by the constitutional court. In the slippery world of diplomacy, of course, western countries would be hard pressed to defend their support for Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, who won an election 16 years ago, if they did not extend the same courtesy to Mr Thaksin.

Singapore, by the same token, would hope to be excused its diplomatic and economic support for the Myanmar junta by saying that it has been a long time since the opposition leader won her victory. Western confidence notwithstanding, Singapore's relations with Bangkok are bruised, with the latter threatening to cancel the city state's rights to use military training facilities in Thailand.

Thai opposition politicians said it was hard to see Mr Thaksin's visit as personal because his 'personal' matters are always business. Newspaper editors asked pointedly how Singapore would react if Bangkok was used as a base for exiles to air comments that were anti the Singaporean government. The fascinating question remains about the Singaporean government's business arm, Temasek, and whether it was prudent, commercially or politically, to buy Mr Thaksin's firm.

As an example of the sensitivities perhaps not understood in Singapore, Thai coup leader Sondhi Boonyaratkalin expressed fears about the purchase of Shin Corp's mobile phone and satellite arms. It meant that 'the army has a problem because our communications and information sent over mobile phones or via satellite could appear in Singapore', he said. 'Although Singapore is not our enemy, we are economic rivals. They could be informed of secrets in the army and in the economic sector.'

It would be interesting to know what Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew really thinks.

When in office, he preached the importance of integrity and being careful not to deal with business executives, whom he suspiciously regarded as simply being out for a fast buck.

The old Singaporean government, under the older Mr Lee, would surely have kept itself at a great distance from the likes of Mr Thaksin.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator