Thaksin court drama grips Bangkok
“People will be shocked by how much money I have,” Thaksin Shinawatra said in 1994 before revealing the extent of his wealth. Now they may be shocked by how much money he got taken away from him, with the Supreme Court ordering the seizure of 46.37 billion baht (about US$1.4 billion dollars) of his 76.6 billion baht in frozen assets.
No stranger to political theater, Thailand once again put on a spectacle Friday when the country’s Supreme Court ruled Thaksin guilty of abuse of power. For weeks, the rumors -- of coups, bribes and impending Armageddon -- swirled around the pending outcome. On Friday, millions across the country tuned in -- all day. The verdict was nearly 1,000 pages and took over seven hours for the judges to read.
Read the latest full news reports at CNN.com International on the Thaksin verdict.
Outside the Bangkok court house, Thaksin’s sympathizers -- the anti-government “red shirts”, gathered. Disenfranchised by the 2006 coup, they feel cheated by a political system that they believe is stacked in favor of the Democrat party and favors the status quo. Twice since Thaksin went into exile, the prime minister of their choice has been ousted. Meanwhile, those who supported the coup (namely the “yellow shirts”) which ousted Thaksin are equally convinced that a guilty verdict would represent justice. For all, Friday's judgment stands not as test of the Thai political and judiciary system but another round in the currently irreconcilable battle between the two sides.
And somewhere out there Thaksin himself awaited the decision, refraining from “tweeting” his reactions from his “cybernonymous” location only to appear on via video link from Dubai afterwards, telling his supporters "they can be angry about the verdict, but they must act rationally and avoid violence".
Thaksin Shinawatra’s billions, facilitated by a telecommunications concession he received from the government in the early 1990s, have always been a source of controversy for him, bolstering and shadowing his political fortunes. In a country where the typical salary is only a few hundred dollars per month, his prosperity has inspired awe, fear and condemnation.
Thaksin’s initial foray into politics in the mid-1990s as foreign minister was cut short by charges the businessman had too many conflicts of interest to represent Thailand abroad. In 2001, after using his riches to found his own party and become prime minister, he was charged with having illegally concealed his assets by giving them to his maids, drivers and family.
“It was purely an honest mistake,” a tearful Thaksin told the Constitutional Court before being acquitted by a single vote. In 2006, when he sold his telecommunications conglomerate Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings for a tax-free $1.9 billion, a public backlash ensued.
To his critics, Thaksin’s greed knows no bounds. They accuse him of buying the allegiance of politicians, of using his state trips abroad for personal business deals and, after the 2006 Shin Corp deal, of nothing less than selling the country itself to a neighbor. To his admirers, however, he is more Robin Hood than traitor. On tours of the impoverished countryside, he was known to give money from his pocket to those in need. His 30-baht healthcare scheme was widely hailed as providing the poor better access to medical care and his Village Fund loan scheme of giving small entrepreneurs a leg up.
Thaksin himself frequently cited his enormous wealth as the reason he could not possibly be corrupt. Although he ran the country in the style of an executive, he saw himself as a humble servant who was sacrificing an easy life for the common good. “After I became a successful businessman, instead of living my life happily, I volunteered to work for the country,” he said in a recent interview with The Times. But when his once political mentor, the Buddhist ascetic Chamlong Srimuang challenged him to give his profits from the Shin Corp sale to charity in order to quell the backlash over the deal, he refused.
For love or money? In Thaksin’s career, he has amassed both. But now a huge chunk of his money, like that of former prime minsters Sarit Thanarat in the 1960s, Thanom Kittikachorn in the 1970s and Chatichai Choonhaven's in the 1990s, has been taken away. So the question remains: will the love go too?
For more background on the case, read "Explainer: Who is Thaksin Shinawatra?" by CNN correspondent Dan Rivers.