Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thai govt looks at returning Thaksin's passport

Associated Press, United Nations | Tue, 09/27/2011

Thailand's foreign minister says the corruption conviction of Thaksin Shinawatra was politically motivated and the new government led by his sister is looking at whether the exiled former prime minister should get his Thai passport back.

Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul also said Monday that Thaksin has helped improve relations between Thailand and Cambodia - after a bloody border skirmish earlier this year - but he denied Thaksin was setting policy for the new government.

Surapong told The Associated Press the former leader was only giving advice to the Pheu Thai Party on implementing the promises that won it convincing election victory in July.

"There is no involvement of former prime minister Thaksin at all in determining the policies of the government," Surapong said on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Former telecommunications magnate Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and later sentenced in absentia to two years in prison, effectively blocking his return to Thailand. Despite living in exile, he has remained pivotal in Thailand's increasingly factional politics which descended into violent unrest last year, when pro-Thaksin protesters occupied a central Bangkok district, prompting a military crackdown. More than 90 people died in the violence.

Capitalizing on Thaksin's huge popularity in rural Thailand, his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who has little political experience, has become Thailand's first woman prime minister.

She heads a coalition government with a comfortable parliamentary majority, which offers hope for political stability. But her appointment has raised questions about who is running the country and whether the new government will seek an amnesty for Thaksin. That would anger the powerful military and establishment that supported his ouster.

The foreign minister played down talk of amnesty and said the government is focused on implementing its election promises. These include hiking the minimum wage and the price farmers get for rice they grow, and distributing tablet computers for schoolchildren.

However, Surapong said he was looking into the legality of the seizure of Thaksin's Thai diplomatic passport in 2009. He implied the seizure was unfair, noting a Thai does not lose his or her national identity card because of a conviction.

Thaksin, mostly based in the United Arab Emirates, has acquired nationality and passports from Montenegro and Nicaragua, enabling him to travel.

Surapong also said that he thinks Thaksin's 2008 conviction on a conflict-of-interest law was politically motivated and might be overturned in the future. Thaksin was accused of facilitating his wife's purchase of lucrative Bangkok real estate from a state agency in 2003, while he was prime minister. Surapong said the real estate had been handed to the government and the court decision should be made void.

Surapong, who is related by marriage to the Shinawatra family, said Thai-Cambodia relations that deteriorated sharply under the previous Thai government were now much improved.

In one of her first foreign trips as prime minister, Yingluck visited Thailand's smaller eastern neighbor in mid-September. Border fighting in February saw tens of thousands of civilians displaced on both sides and at least 16 people killed, mostly by artillery fire.

Surapong said the two countries agreed to de-link their cooperation in trade, investment and tourism from the border dispute, which centers on their competing claims to a small parcel of land around the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple.

Surapong said Thailand would comply with a ruling from the International Court of Justice for both sides to withdraw their troops at the same time from disputed land around the temple. He said a bilateral border commission will sort out the details, and he expected the Thai Cabinet and Parliament to give its approval.

While denying Thaksin was determining foreign policy, Surapong said the former premier's long-standing friendship with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had helped "elevate" the bilateral relationship.

Thaksin made a high-profile visit to Cambodia two days after Yingluck and embraced Hun Sen. Surapong said it was a purely private visit by Thaksin to deliver a lecture to Cambodian businessmen.

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