Ex-Thai premier flees prosecution

Former prime minister, wife return to Britain

August 12, 2008|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JAKARTA, Indonesia - A former Thai prime minister and his wife jumped bail yesterday and returned to exile in Britain to escape prosecution on corruption charges.

In a statement read on Thai television, Thaksin Shinawatra said from London that unnamed political opponents were out to get him and that he was the victim of "judicial interference."

"What happened to me and my family and my close relations resulted from efforts to get rid of me from politics," Thaksin said. "These are my political enemies. They don't care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognized due process."

A Thai court allowed Thaksin and his wife to attend the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, but they failed to return as scheduled and missed a court appearance yesterday morning.

Thai prosecutors said they were discussing the possibility of asking for Thaksin's extradition - usually a lengthy and complicated process - and the country's Supreme Court issued arrest warrants for Thaksin and his wife.

A court statement said it would confiscate bail totaling more than $385,000 that was posted by the billionaire and his wife, Pojamarn Shinawatra. The court also issued warrants for their arrest.

Thaksin's wife returned from self-exile in London in January. She was recently convicted of tax fraud, sentenced to three years in prison and released on bail pending an appeal. Thaksin, who had spent 17 years in exile, followed her to Thailand in February to face charges that he helped his wife get a sweetheart deal on prime land in Bangkok while he was in power.

In separate cases, he faces charges stemming from alleged irregularities in a state-run lottery created to fund education and in a $120 million loan to neighboring Myanmar, known as Burma, by Thailand's Export-Import Bank.

For the moment, Thaksin's departure is expected to defuse political tensions that had mounted as the government, widely seen as his proxy, faced down opposition protesters.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a Thaksin ally and television chef elected in December after the ruling junta kept a promise to restore democracy, is accused by opponents of mismanaging the economy and a Muslim insurgency in the south.

Popular among Thailand's rural poor, Thaksin won landslide election victories in 2001 and 2005. The military overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 2006. It banned his Thai Rak Thai party and filed corruption charges against him.

Thai authorities also have frozen more than $2 billion of his family's assets pending the corruption cases against him.

Thaksin claimed his life was at risk in Thailand and insisted he would remain in exile in Britain "where democracy is more important."

"I receive information and hints about attempts to assassinate me all the time," he said in his statement.

Thaksin apologized to the court and fellow Thais and left open the possibility that he might try to return to his homeland again.

"If I am fortunate enough," he said, "I will return and die on Thai soil, just like other Thais."

Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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