Thailand is bracing for “Judgment Day” on Friday --when the highest court decides whether to seize the $2.29 billion fortune of the country’s divisive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
The universal assumption is that the Supreme Court will confiscate at least part of Mr. Thaksin’s fortune, which was frozen after his ouster in a 2006 coup that was staged because of his alleged corruption and abuse of power.
The big question is whether Mr. Thaksin supporters will react to the verdict with riots. That could usher in a painful new chapter in Thailand’s political crisis after four years dominated by a bitter and sometimes violent rivalry between the allies and foes of the former telecommunications tycoon.
Mr. Thaksin won two landslide election victories and remains popular among Thailand’s rural poor who benefited from his policies. But he is generally loathed by the urban elite, including in the military and bureaucracy, who contend he sought to usurp the power of the country’s revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Ahead of Friday’s verdict, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government has called in the troops. More than 20,000 soldiers and police will be on alert nationwide --with about 6,000 in Bangkok, the capital. Judges have been offered safe havens. Banks have been told to stock extra cash to accommodate panic withdrawals.
The verdict is timed to minimize the blow to Thailand’s stock market, which like the economy and tourism industry have suffered through the instability. Judges will begin reading their ruling at 1 p.m. (0600 GMT) and are expected to finish after the market closes ahead of a three—day holiday weekend.
“If everybody remains calm and accepts the (ruling), Thailand will get through this situation,” Abhisit said Wednesday.
Mr. Thaksin supporters say the talk about violence is government propaganda designed to discredit them. The pro—Thaksin Red Shirts, known formally as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, say no protests are scheduled for Friday but a peaceful “million man march” will be held March 14 in Bangkok.
The 60-year-old Mr. Thaksin, who jumped bail and fled the country in 2008, has been stoking supporters from his current base in Dubai with video messages, telephone call—ins to small protests and regular Twitter postings.
“If I don’t receive justice, I will fight for it in every way,” Mr. Thaksin said earlier this week. “I am willing to negotiate. But if I am persecuted and bullied, I will not tolerate it.”
Mr. Thaksin has served as Thailand’s prime minister for five years until he was unseated by the September 2006 coup. Critics accused the tycoon—turned—politician of massive corruption and abusing his power by shaping government policy to enrich his family’s telecommunications empire. He was convicted in absentia of conflict of interest in 2008 and sentenced to two years in prison.
A nine—judge panel at the court’s special Criminal Division for Political Office Holders will determine if Mr. Thaksin concealed his assets after becoming prime minister and used his office to enrich himself. His 76.77 billion baht ($2.29 billion) fortune was frozen after the coup and is reportedly stashed in more than 100 bank accounts and other investments belonging to himself, his now ex—wife, his children and other relatives.
Judges will consider several cases of Mr. Thaksin’s alleged policy abuse, including a multimillion dollar government loan to Myanmar in 2004. Mr. Thaksin is accused of endorsing the US$127 million low—interest loan in exchange for the junta’s purchases of satellite services from Shin Satellite, then controlled by Mr. Thaksin’s family.
The Supreme Court’s decision technically cannot be appealed --it is the highest court --though defense lawyers have 30 days after the ruling to submit new evidence deemed significant to the case.
Thailand is talking about little else at the moment. The mostly anti—Mr. Thaksin national media have been counting down to the verdict for weeks, calling it “The Big Day,” and “Judgment Day.”
Mr. Thaksin supporters are demanding fresh elections and say their real mission is to end injustice in Thai society where the real power is held by the elite. They say Abhisit took power illegitimately after court rulings unseated two post—coup governments led by Mr. Thaksin allies.
“We can expect to see some assets --if not all --confiscated by the Supreme Court,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist and director of the Bangkok—based Institute of Security and International Studies. “But it would not put an end to Thailand’s crisis, because now Mr. Thaksin’s supporters the Red Shirts ... have evolved into their own force to be reckoned with.”
“They are more than just Thaksin now, and Thailand’s problem now is more than just Thaksin.”