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Former Thai PM Thaksin throws down the gauntlet to government

02/05/2010 | Liz Chong and Taimur Ahmad

Thailand’s exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra broke a six-month silence this weekend in an exclusive interview with Emerging Markets, and claimed he may return to Bangkok this year

Thailand’s exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra broke a six-month silence this weekend, and claimed he may return to Bangkok this year, in an exclusive interview with Emerging Markets.

Speaking by telephone, Thaksin warned the government that it was on its last legs, and that further crackdowns on anti-government red shirt protestors – many of whom remain loyal to him – would backfire.

“They want to crack down on the people, but there are a million red shirts”, he said. “The only way forward is to reconcile, but if they want to kill red shirts there are too many. Do they want to kill millions? The red shirts are everywhere.”

Thaksin said the government had run out of options, and should relinquish power or face a mass uprising that could envelop the entire country.

In an earlier interview with Emerging Markets, conducted face to face at his Dubai home last month, Thaksin said: “This is their last chance if they want to reconcile.

That “can happen easily” if parliament is dissolved, but “if [the government] cracks down this time, the red shirt movement will get much bigger. When the first line of leaders has been arrested, there will be a second line and third line.”

He downplayed his own role, saying: “This is not about me. I’ve been a very small part of the movement.” But he admitted advising red shirts “during peak times like this, maybe one or two hours [a day]. They call me for advice because many of them are my supporters.”

Asked if he could return to Thailand within three months, Thaksin replied: “I don’t know. Hard to say, but I think it is possible this year.”

The prolonged and increasingly deadly standoff between the government and red shirt protestors deteriorated again this weekend.

On Friday crowds stormed the Chulalongkorn hospital in search of soldiers believed to be hiding there, following violent clashes with the army that have led to 27 deaths and almost 1000 injuries.

Red shirts are demanding the resignation of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying he seized power illegally. Last week they backed off an earlier demand for parliament to be dissolved immediately, and offered to end their demonstration in return for early elections. This was rejected by Abhisit.

The Thai cabinet is meeting this morning in special session to discuss the crisis, government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn said yesterday, according to wire reports.

Rumours have circulated of Thaksin’s death, but the billionaire businessman confirmed this weekend that he is alive and well. He quipped: “They say that I am dead already. I am speaking to you from heaven: the reception here is good.”

Thai finance minister Korn Chatikavanij argued that Thaksin bore responsibility for the depth of the conflict in an interview with Emerging Markets this weekend. The rift between government and opposition “is deep and it is made deeper, frankly, by Thaksin,” he said.

“He needs the rift in order to use [it] as leverage to try to blackmail the country into giving him what he wants. It’s a challenge for democracy and a democratic government to fight someone who’s willing to use unconstitutional methods.

Korn dismissed Thaksin’s calls for reconciliation as false. “Reconciliation for Thaksin is that his money and power are given back to him which frankly speaking is not going to happen.”

Korn, who is seen by some as a potential contender for prime minister, said the government was keen to negotiate a settlement with the red shirts. “Most importantly the rule of law needs to be respected. The easiest way is for Thaksin is to acknowledge that he broke the law, and when you break the law he [sic] has to pay the consequences.

“He is welcome to come back anytime,” Korn said. “If he comes back he has to serve his time in jail.”

Thaksin faces a two-year jail sentence in Thailand on corruption charges, which he dismisses as politically motivated. He was ousted in 2006 after winning a second term as prime minister.

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