Thailand’s highest court convened on Friday to rule whether deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, should lose part of his fortune for alleged corruption, with a decision either way unlikely to end four years of sometimes—violent political strife.
Tight security was in place around the courthouse, amid government fears that Thaksin loyalists could react to the verdict with violence. The decision was not expected for several hours after the Thai stock market closes for the day.
Nine judges of the Supreme Court are broadly applying mostly untested anti—corruption statutes in determining whether Mr. Thaksin - a telecommunications tycoon before entering politics - became “unusually wealthy” by abusing his position at the head of government from 2001—2006.
They could order the confiscation of the $2.9 billion of his family’s assets frozen in Thai banks. Mr. Thaksin and an unknown portion of his family’s wealth are safely ensconced abroad.
Mr. Thaksin, ousted in a 2006 coup and facing a jail term in Thailand, was monitoring the proceedings from exile in Dubai, where he was scheduled to provide a running commentary via video link.
In a message on Twitter early Friday, Mr. Thaksin insisted all the money he and has family accumulated were “with our own sweat, labour and brains. We never cheated.”
The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is hoping Friday’s decision will lead to a return of stability, but has ordered a security crackdown around the country, claiming that the pro—Thaksin “Red Shirt” movement may be planning violence.
“We hope for the best,” said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. “Of course many people fear for the worst but we are ready to manage whatever comes.”
The judges will look at whether Mr. Thaksin illegally parked his fortune with family members because he was not allowed to hold company shares while prime minister, and whether his administration implemented policies to benefit his family’s businesses, an offense that has been termed “policy corruption.”
Issues include whether telecoms liberalization measures unfairly benefited the country’s main mobile phone service provider, then controlled by Mr. Thaksin’s family; and whether he unfairly promoted a US$127 million low—interest loan to neighbouring Myanmar to benefit a satellite communications company also controlled by his family.
Mr. Thaksin’s critics would see a guilty verdict as the culmination of a process to cleanse Thai politics that began with protests in 2006 calling for Mr. Thaksin’s ouster for alleged corruption that segued into a military coup in September that year. They also accused him of disrespecting the country’s constitutional monarch, 82—year—old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
His supporters would see such a ruling as the latest in a series of injustices that illegally drove a democratically elected leader from office despite two sweeping election victories. They believe he is being persecuted because the traditional urban ruling class felt threatened when he empowered the country’s rural majority, which was grateful for Mr. Thaksin’s innovative social welfare programs.
The passions held by the two sides led to the occupation of the seat of government for several months and seizure of the capital’s two airports for a week by Mr. Thaksin’s opponents in 2008, and rioting and disruption of a conference of Asian heads of government by his supporters last year.
His “Red Shirt” supporters continue to rally on his behalf, and have promised a “million—man” march for next month.
Mr. Thaksin, who fled into exile ahead of a 2008 conviction on a conflict of interest charge that dealt him a two—year jail sentence, rallies his followers by video and over the Internet.
His opponents accuse him of funding the Red Shirt movement to topple the government, and hope that seizing his assets will starve the movement.
But at least one analyst says the anti—government movement will not simply fade away, even if Mr. Thaksin’s cash dries up.
“It would not put an end to Thailand’s crisis because now Mr. Thaksin’s supporters, the Red Shirts - the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship - they have evolved into their own force to be reckoned with,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.