New York Times

By THOMAS FULLER

Published: October 21, 2008
 

BANGKOK — An anti-corruption court on Tuesday sentenced Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister now living in exile in Britain, to two years in prison for violating conflict of interest rules in the purchase of a piece of land in Bangkok.

Although the infraction was relatively minor and the details of the case obscure to many Thais, the court’s decision set the tone for further confrontation between the current government, which has links to Mr. Thaksin, and anti-government protesters who have barricaded and occupied the prime minister’s office compound since August, leading the government to conduct its business in Bangkok’s former international airport.

The protesters were jubilant when the court’s decision was read out live on television. They are seeking the government’s ouster and an alternative form of democracy that weakens the electoral clout of lesser-educated Thais, many of whom are Mr. Thaksin’s supporters.

In Bangkok. the leaders of the protest stood on their makeshift stage at the prime minister’s compound and led a chant: “Thaksin, in jail! Thaksin, in jail!”

With both pro-government supporters and protesters periodically parading through the city, political leaders urged calm. Two people were killed and hundreds were injured in clashes between the police and anti-government demonstrators earlier this month.

Mr. Thaksin criticized the verdict Tuesday when reached by telephone in Britain by Reuters. “The case is politically motivated and you know what politics in Thailand is like,” he said.

Tuesday’s ruling was made by a special nine-member bench of the Supreme Court known as the Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions. The judges ruled 5 to 4 that Mr. Thaksin abused his power when his wife, Pojaman, purchased a plot of desirable land from a government agency controlled by the central bank.

The judges ruled that because Mr. Thaksin was prime minister he was “supposed to work for the benefit of the public.” Prosecutors had argued that the 772 million baht, or about $22 million, paid for the land in 2003 was well below market value.

Ms. Pojaman was acquitted of all charges and the judges did not order the couple to forfeit the land as prosecutors had requested.

Thailand’s political crisis has increasingly been fought in the courts with Mr. Thaksin and his allies more often than not on the losing side.

Mr. Thaksin’s political party, Thai Rak Thai, was disbanded by a court last year. A successor party, the People Power Party, which now controls the government, is also being threatened with dissolution.

The former leader of the People Power Party, Samak Sundaravej, was forced to resign last month as prime minister when a court ruled that remuneration from a cooking show on television violated the Constitution. He was replaced as prime minister by Somchai Wongsawat, Mr. Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

The judges Tuesday issued a fresh warrant for Mr. Thaksin’s arrest, adding to several already outstanding. But it appears unlikely that British authorities will hand him over to Thai authorities given Britain’s strict extradition laws.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that Mr. Thaksin’s conviction will “expire” within 10 years. His sentence was lower than the maximum three years provided under the law.

Mr. Thaksin has an incentive to stay engaged in Thai politics: the $2 billion of his assets in Thailand frozen by the courts. In the two years since his ouster in a military coup, Mr. Thaksin has remained very popular among farmers in the north and northeastern part of the country who make up a large part of the electorate.