Thaksin Shinawatra could now be riding a wave of domestic and international acclaim if he had served his ‘unjust’ sentence and emerged as a political martyr
A comment by Shandi Mukergee
The recent visit to Cambodia by Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister, displays a glaring fault line in his character. Rather than attend his trial on corruption charges he, in criminal terms, “did a runner” to foreign countries, one of which found him to be a distinct embarrassment and deported him, others preferred not to sully their hands with him.
It’s hard to believe that the policeman-turned-economist-turned-politician who had his country and its future in the palm of his hand is now a fugitive from what he has described as “injustice”. Further, he has had to be extremely careful to avoid landing in countries with any form of extradition treaty with Thailand. So the man who once had an enviable network of friends in the corridors of power has become an international pariah.
The faultline in his character, the knee-jerk reaction to run, though, not only spoiled his opportunity for heroic status on the world stage but also revealed a myopic view of his role in his nation’s future. The rice farmers in the east jammed against the Thai/Cambodia border have lost a national and open-handed hero who they could count on to fight their corner when it came to subsidies and government aid. The city fathers in Bangkok and other centres of commerce and finance in the Kingdom have also lost a champion who fought for their independence and aggrandisement. After all, he may not have been born one of them but in his business dealings he grew in stature and was a welcome guest in boardrooms across the country.
All of this is now just so much wishful thinking for a man who although not touched with greatness had greatness thrust upon him by a throng of adoring, red-shirted supporters. In a country where elected representatives have all too often been replaced by the military, he chose to run for cover when confronted by the prospect of jail rather than the adulation he was used to.
In history there have been countless heroic political figures who served their sentences and subsequently realised their ambitions for their people. The best example, and a man who stands head and shoulders above the rest, has to be Nelson Mandela, who fought against the apartheid regime and white supremacy that ostracised South Africa from the rest of the civilised world.
Although Mandela did not have the opportunity of an alternative route away from purgatory as taken by Thaksin, he took his unjust punishment and ultimately served 27 years incarceration on the infamous Robben Island. His release followed the relaxation of apartheid laws – including lifting the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), the leading black rights party – by F W de Klerk, the South African president.
His release – covered by film, television, radio and newspaper correspondents from around the world – was a triumphal procession back into the limelight and assured him of the eventual landslide vote that made him the country’s first black president. His popularity lives on after his presidency and despite problems in his homeland, South Africa is leading the African nations towards a new and more promising dawn for its peoples.
Another worthy role model has to be Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a landslide election victory in Myanmar and was immediately put under house arrest to ensure that her reforming ways did not upset the junta’s gravy train. She has stoically endured her sentence and her smiling face has become a beacon even US presidents cannot ignore. She may not be the greatest of all politicians and probably doesn’t have Thaksin’s anticipated economic expertise, but she is seen by her people as a hero fighting for her convictions.
Had Thaksin gone to jail two years ago, he would now be a free man, revered even more by his followers and respected by his enemies. His cell would certainly not have been a dark dungeon, but a bright room with TV, internet and books he could have used to prepare himself for the next stage of his career. After all he would have been out of the political loop and avoided a severe economic crisis. His re-entry into the political arena will mean he has to confront a highly educated political opponent.
The lecture Thaksin gave at Cambodia’s ministry of finance in November offered nothing new to the gathering of 300 economists, just a reworking of ideas that he promulgated during his years as the Thai leader. In truth, any World Bank adviser would be more suited to discuss Cambodia’s economic future than the former Thai politician.
Allowing his friend Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, to use him against Abhisit Vejjajiva was probably another misguided move. So in essence, the wilderness years beckon Thailand’s former strong man. He just has to find a country that will take him.
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