by Anil Bhoyrul
Sunday, 30 November 2008
Last week Thailand descended into chaos as tens of thousands of protesters surrounded parliament in a bid to drive out the government it accuses of being puppets of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Since he was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006, his UK visa has been revoked, his wife has divorced him and a controversial two-year jail sentence for corruption awaits him in his home country. In his first interview in 18 months, he speaks to Arabian Business.
If Thaksin Shinawatra is feeling the heat, then he’s not showing it. Thailand has an arrest warrant out for its former prime minister. The UK has just revoked his visa, and some Western countries are distancing themselves from the man they once championed as their greatest ally in Asia. And yet all Shinawatra can do is shrug.
“Do you know how many countries there are in the world? There are 197. And only 17 have an extradition treaty with Thailand,” he notes with a thin smile. “Better still, only 10 of those treaties are active. So, don’t you worry about me, I still have many places to stay.”
The poor have no choice but to live in a capitalist economy, but they have no capital. They have no access to it. If you give them that access, it changes everything.
One such place is Dubai, where Shinawatra is resting comfortably in one of the emirate’s top five-star hotels. He might feel entitled to a break, too, as it has been a busy 2008 for the man first nominated to Thailand’s top office in a landslide election victory in 2001.
Two years ago he was overthrown in a bloodless coup while visiting the UN in New York. Exiled after months of massive anti-government protests, he ended up in the UK, where he bought Premier League football club Manchester City.
After the 2007 election, in which his new People Power Party won a healthy majority, and the forming of a new democratic government by his allies, Shinawatra returned in early 2008 to face his corruption charges in legal courts. However, he and his wife skipped bail – they were convicted in absentia, and a lengthy stay in a Bangkok jail awaits them if they return.
The UK froze his reputed $4bn of assets, forcing him to sell Manchester City to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour. To add to his troubles, his UK visa was revoked – oh, and his wife divorced him last week.
“It’s been a busy few months,” he says, laughing at his own predicament. And it’s about to get even busier, as Shinawatra reveals he intends to make a comeback in politics, tackle global poverty, reorganise the Middle East’s healthcare system – and while he’s at it, establish a sizeable foundation to look after Asians hit by the financial crisis.
The really tricky one on the above ‘Shinawatra to-do list’ is return to politics. On October 21, 2008, five members of a nine-member special bench of the Supreme Court found him guilty of a conflict of interest and sentenced him to two years in jail.
The judges found that Shinawatra had ultimate oversight over the Financial Institutions Development Fund, a government-run agency that bought up bank collateral and mortgages. Shinawatra’s wife won a competitive auction for a piece of land owned by the FIDF in 2003, and the judges found that his wife’s purchase of the land was done on his behalf, thus constituting a conflict of interest.
Given the two-year jail term that awaits him upon his his return – not to mention a long list of political enemies who would like to see the back of him for good – a return to his homeland doesn’t sound like the wisest move.
“I have no choice,” he insists. “In the beginning after I was ousted, my wife asked me not to go back to politics. She didn’t like politics, and the whole family went through a lot of hardship so I didn’t go back.
“But now I have been cornered because the country is going down deeply,” he continues. “The confidence is not there; the trust among the foreign community is not there; the poor people in rural areas are in difficulty.
With me at the helm I can bring confidence quickly back to Thailand, and that is why we have to find a mechanism under which I can go back into politics.”
What does his wife think about this? “She has divorced me,” he responds, bluntly – end of subject.
He admits that going back now would be too risky, but insists that “time is on my side”. Last week tens of thousands of anti-government protesters marched on Thailand’s parliament.
The protesters, from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) blocked all streets leading to parliament and besieged other state buildings, forcing MPs to cancel their business, in response to a grenade attack on the protester’s camp that killed one of their supporters earlier this month.
Violence flared and as Arabian Business went to press, the head of Thailand’s army had asked the government to dissolve parliament and call new elections – circumstances hardly conducive to a return for the former prime minister.
“I can stay here and do some business, enjoy life a bit. But I have to go back for my people and my supporters, most of whom are poor or middle class,” he says.
“In the past the poor didn’t see the future – they only saw the bitter past and short present,” he continues. “After I became PM I gave them hope, I brought them freshness. They saw a future for their children to go to school and for their crops. They were happy – even taxi drivers were happy – and I brought the economy back to normal.”
But could he really be PM again? Shinawatra is adamant that it could happen.
“The coup is still there – it has been transformed from a military coup to a judicial coup,” he explains. “I think a lot depends on the power of the people – if they feel they are in hardship and they need me to help them, I will go back.
“If the King feels I can be beneficial I will go back and he may grant me a royal pardon,” he continues. “If they don’t need me and the King feels I can make no difference then I will stay here and do business. I will live my life with friends.”
Today Shinawatra is in the Gulf rekindling close friendships with business and political leaders in the region. He said he has been made to feel very welcome, unlike in the UK, where many were surprised by the British government’s decision to revoke his visa. Now, he chooses his words carefully, but remains singularly unimpressed at the circumstances of his departure.
“I think the UK is a mature democratic country, and they should understand that I am the victim of the coup d’etat,” he maintains. “I am the victim of dictatorship, even though there was a court verdict.
“But that is like the fruit on the poisoned tree – the whole tree has been poisoned and I am the fruit. The tree was planted by the military coup,” he says, adding: “England must understand better but unfortunately they are now busy with their own problems so they forgot about democratic values.
“I don’t care, though – I thank them because I went there, I bought a football club then sold it and made some money in the process,” he says. “They gave me a place to stay, even though it was short-term. My children went to school there.
One day, they will understand better, and they will feel sorrow for what they have done because they have not respected their own democratic values.”
So what next for Shinawatra? Putting his political problems aside, Shinawatra is focused on tackling poverty in Asia. He speaks passionately about the plight of the poor, and details the measures he took during his reign in Thailand – and how they worked. Top of his agenda is healthcare. During his premiership, Shinawatra wasted no time in introducing a new system of blanket healthcare insurance for the equivalent of just 3 dirhams a month.
“At least 18 million poor people can now enjoy full healthcare,” he says proudly. “If they are having a baby they pay just 3 dirhams. For heart surgery, 3 dirhams. I re-managed the whole public health budget and allocated set amounts to every hospital.
“We added more equipment and built centres of excellence. Now they can get the same service as anyone else, regardless of how poor they are,” he adds.
Does he plan to do the same here? “I think if I can re-manage for the UAE government, I will do exactly the same. I will bring in the same experts who used to work with me. I will not just give treatment but also preventive measures – for example, there is a lot that can be done with nutrition and other advice on healthy living.”
Shinawatra insists that he would increase the number of family doctors available, and also establish clinics nearer to housing districts, in order to free up hospital resources and make life easier for the 80 percent of patients who do not actually require hospital treatment.
As well as improving healthcare services in the emirates, Shinawatra is also putting together his own detailed proposals for tackling poverty on a wider scale.
In particular, he wants governments to use their surpluses to create micro-loans for the poor, in the same way that they were pioneered by Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, in Bangladesh.
Thailand’s People Bank, giving the poor small loans at just 2.5 percent, has been a huge success and Shinawatra wants to extend the principle across Asia.
In order to achieve this dream, he has launched a new foundation, named ‘Building a Better Future’.
“What does the capitalist economy mean? It means you need capital to create wealth,” he explains. “The poor have no choice but to live in a capitalist economy, but they have no capital. They have no access to it. If you give them that access, it changes everything.”
Shinawatra insists that the poverty issue is one that has been “misunderstood” in the past. “Most countries are run by veteran politicians who only have experience of politics,” he points out. “What is missing is management. Politics is about power and law – politicians don’t understand how to run an organisation.
“As an experienced businessman I think I bring some modern management to the government,” he continues. “It proved to work well in Thailand but they didn’t let me stay that long. If I had stayed the full eight years I think I could have made a big difference.”
With so much on his agenda, it is hard to say what the future holds for Thaksin Shinawatra. He expresses deep gratitude to Abu Dhabi’s HH Sheikh Mansour for engineering the takeover of Manchester City, saying he sold a club but gained “a great friend”. Above all, though, he is looking to go home. He makes no apologies, and has no regrets, about the past.
“I cannot live in my own country. There were many assassination attempts, and my family has been broken up because we all have to live in different countries. I regret the result, but not what I have done. You see, I love the Thai people.”