Thailand's fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has spent much of the past three years roaming the globe, shopping for diamonds in Africa, golfing at Asian resorts - and humiliating the government from a distance.
After stirring up sometimes violent passions from afar among his
supporters and opponents inside Thailand, the deposed leader has
now entangled his homeland in a diplomatic imbroglio with
neighboring Cambodia, which this past week named him a special
adviser on economic matters.
The idea of Thaksin being made welcome by Cambodia's mercurial
Prime Minister Hun Sen has jangled nerves in the Thai capital.
Thailand already has a nasty dispute with its neighbor over border
territory, which has led to several small but deadly clashes over
the past year and a half.
Now Thaksin - who was ousted in a 2006 coup after being accused
of corruption and insulting the country's constitutional monarch -
may have found his launchpad for a political comeback.
"Thaksin is on a new offensive. This is a calculated campaign
to undermine this government and to change governments," said
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's
Chulalongkorn University. "He wants to retake what he sees as his
legitimate right, which is to have another election that he
believes he will win."
For the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva,
Cambodia's action is a slap in the face it feels compelled to
respond to, calling it "interference in Thailand's domestic
From cyberspace, Thaksin tweeted to his 40,000 Twitter followers
that Abhisit's recall of the Thai ambassador was a "childish
"I'm asking permission from all Thai people to advise the
Cambodian government ... until I have a chance to serve you
again," he tweeted separately, calling his new job "an honor."
Thailand announced Friday it would back out of an offshore
border agreement with Cambodia, which has so far accomplished
little but was aimed at eventually finding a way to jointly develop
oil and gas reserves in disputed waters.
Thaksin is thought to currently be in Dubai.
He has not indicated if he plans to live in Cambodia or spelled
out how he will perform his new dual role as personal adviser to
Hun Sen and an economic adviser to his government.
Thaksin, a tycoon turned politician, was elected by landslide
wins to serve two terms as prime minister from 2001 to 2006. He
retains huge popularity among his rural poor power base who have
staged frequent rallies calling for his pardon and return to power.
But he is reviled by the educated urban elite, who led months of
street protests that led to the coup and again when his allies
briefly took power.
Efforts to cut him down to size have failed. Courts have
sentenced him to two years in prison for corruption while in office
and dissolved his political party, while his Thai assets worth
$2.25 billion have been frozen and his Thai personal and diplomatic
Britain, Germany and other countries have barred Thaksin, but
there were no shortage of others willing to accept his investment
offers and hand over new passports, including Nicaragua and
Thaksin posts photos of his travels on Facebook. Recent
snapshots show him golfing in Brunei and Dubai, inspecting diamond
mines in South Africa, sipping coffee in a private jet and meeting
prime ministers or presidents on trips to Sri Lanka, Papua New
Guinea and the Maldives.
Investment in diamond and gold sectors have led Thaksin to
Liberia, Uganda and Swaziland, prompting one tweet in August after
negative headlines at home: "I've checked several times that my
diamonds are not blood diamonds. Don't worry."
Thaksin's new relationship with Hun Sen is bound to revive
speculation of private business deals between the two while he was
No such ethical doubts dog current Prime Minister Abhisit, but
he face the bigger headache of how to calm the political maelstrom
"Thailand is now in the international spotlight and its leader
has been discredited," said Sompop Manarungsan, a political
economist at Chulalongkorn University. "The strategy Thaksin is
using, I call it 'crashing.' He is destroying everything in his
path to reach his goal."
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