Thailand on edge before ruling on £1.5bn seized from former PM

Political schism will deepen whichever way result goes for Thaksin Shinawatra

A Thai court is today due to decide whether the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra can keep nearly £1.5bn in assets seized by the government, a ruling that – whichever way it goes – is likely to deepen the political schism dividing the country and could trigger new waves of violence.

Bangkok has gone into lockdown ahead of the judgment. Thaksin is still loved by the rural poor but despised by the Bangkok elite.

While major protests by the Thaksin-loyal "red shirts", which are expected to draw a million people on to the streets, have been postponed for a fortnight because of logistical problems, thousands will mass at the courthouse today. Soldiers and police are in position across Bangkok and at entrances to the capital. Busloads of protesters from the Thaksin-supporting north and north-east are expected to be turned back at the city limits.

The nine judges in the case have round-the-clock security and 27 countries, including Britain, have issued warnings on travel to Thailand, and the capital in particular. Already one homemade bomb has exploded near Government House and another was defused near the supreme court. Further attacks are expected.

At stake is 76bn baht (£1.484bn) in cash, shares and property which Thaksin's critics argue he accumulated largely through executing policies which benefited his family company, Shin Corp, including government-sanctioned loans to the pariah state of Burma.

Thaksin, forced from power by a military-led coup in 2006, fled into exile before a 2008 conflict of interest conviction that saw him sentenced to two years in jail. But he looms large still in Thai politics via video messages, Twitter and his blog, from Dubai and Cambodia.

He said this week he was willing to return to negotiate a peaceful settlement but only in return for a blanket pardon: "I don't want to die outside of Thailand. I don't want to return as bones and ashes." The government rejected his appeal.

Almost all commentators are predicting Thaksin will be found guilty of behaving corruptly, which will be seen as vindication of the coup.

"I have no doubt there will be a guilty verdict, it's just a matter of how much of his assets will be taken away," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

But even a compromise decision, instead of pleasing everybody, is likely to please nobody. Thitinan said: "This decision is a watershed, a dramatic, critical episode in Thai politics, but it will not resolve the crisis; in fact, it is likely to exacerbate the crisis. Thaksin is someone who doesn't quit. He will not be satisfied until he gets everything back. His enemies will not be satisfied if he gets anything back. For them, this is the final act of Thaksin's political decapitation."

Sustained violent protests could further damage the fragile economy and weaken the already beleaguered coalition government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva.

A veteran politician, Veera Musigapong, has said the red shirts will continue "fighting against dictatorship" regardless of the outcome. "Our political gatherings will continue, according to our plan to bring back democracy and to overthrow the current government."

A prominent Thaksin critic, Suriyasai Katasila, conceded the conflict would not die with the court decision. "Thaksin will carry out his revenge against his opponents. The clashes of opinions will persist and are not likely to cease for the next couple of years."


Ben Doherty Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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