Sunday, February 14, 2010

All the Marbles?

Former Prime Minister Thaksin and his red shirt clad allies have been on the losing side of many court cases over the past few years. They've seen the courts dissolve two Thaksin-ally led governments, disqualify a number of their members for electoral fraud, and even found Thaksin guilty (of fraud I believe) and sentence him to jail. That does not even count the 111 former Thaksin allies who were banned from politics for five years shortly after the 2006 coup.

Despite these setbacks, the biggest case of all is coming to a head. On February 26th, the Thai Supreme Court will rule on a case involving Thaksin's seventy-six billion baht (about two billion dollars U.S.) fortune. Prosecutors claim that Thaksin abused his position as Prime Minister to enrich himself and his family members. The state is seeking to confiscate the entire fortune. Thaksin and his family, who claim part of the fortune is theirs, are vigorously disputing the governments contentions.

The seizure of these assets would not only take away Thaksin's wealth, but will dramatically weaken him politically. Despite having been deposed, convicted of a crime, and living in exile, Thaksin is still the de facto leader of the Peau Thai party; that is the party with the most members of any party in Parliament. Thaksin's continued power, however, lies in large part with his purse strings. He can control the party by providing the money that they need to get elected. If his fortune is forfeited to the state, I believe that his power will be dramatically weakened.

For his political opponents, I'm sure that nothing would make them happier than to see the courts plunge a metaphorical dagger into the heart of Thaksin. They would very much like to take away his treasure and power. The problem is that there is one other card that this once and perhaps future billionaire holds in his hand. He is very popular with a lot of the people in Thailand, particularly those in the North and Northeast. Thaksin is very much a billoinaire populist.

Thaksin was widely seen as helping the poor during his time as Prime Minister. Whether the corruption charges are true or false, many poor Thai people saw Thaksin as someone who stood up to the Bangkok elite; the wealthy upper class that looked down their noses at their more humble and less educated bretheren. Think about it from their perspective for a second. If old guard can bring down a man like Thaksin, a man who amassed a fortune in the billions and became Prime Minister, what chance does an ordinary farmer have? When men as powerful as Thaksin can be cast aside and stripped of most of what they own, how can a lowly farmer expect to be treated fairly?

The red shirts are going to rally in advance of the court verdict. If Thaksin is routed completely in the courts, his entire assets seized, I think the protests could get ugly.

As far as how the court will rule, I'm not certain. One thing that seems pretty clear is that Thaksin was already incredibly wealthy before he became Prime Minister. Even if he did as the government charges and used his position to enrich himself and his family, it would only account for part of his assets. I know that the prosecutors acknowledge this, but I think their play for the entire fortune is based in some part on lost revenue to the government based on his alleged self-serving deals.

My best guess is that they will find that he abused his position. This is based not so much on the facts of the case but on his track record with the courts. If this happens, it would be in the best interest of Thailand if only a portion of his assets were impounded to the state. I know in an ideal world, judged should perhaps be oblivious to political machinations. Whether that occurs in reality, I cannot say.

The next few weeks should be interesting.

No comments: