Thailand’s ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra made a rare, if virtual, appearance in Hong Kong Thursday, and the telecom billionaire said his exile had left him strapped for cash.
After cancelling a planned public appearance in the city 10 days ago under pressure from the current Thai government, Thaksin appeared in front of a packed lunch crowd at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club by videolink.
Following a forgettable speech about the general state of the global economy, Thaksin was unable to resist questions about the political infighting that has blighted Thailand since he was ousted from power.
And he even joked that the military coup had helped shield his wealth from the worst of the current financial crisis.
“I do not know whether I should condemn or thank the military junta that has frozen my assets in Thailand, otherwise I probably would have invested a lot in the stock exchange and lost it,” he said.
Thaksin added he was short of money and had “just enough” to cover his travel expenses and maintain his lifestyle. Despite this, he said he was considering investments in telecom, where he made his fortune.
Thaksin, whose whereabouts has been uncertain for some time, confirmed rumours that he was currently in Dubai, but said he had turned down offers of passports by the leaders of several countries.
“(The leaders) worry about me and have offered the passport of their country to me, to help protect me,” he said, adding he still “believed” in his Thai citizenship.
In a recent interview with the Far Eastern Economic Review, Thaksin said he had accepted passports from other countries, although he did not name them.
And while he sometimes evaded specific questions about his views on the tumultuous political situation in Thailand during Thursday’s lunch, he eventually made a statesman-like call for calm.
He said it was time for the two sides to “bury the hatchet and come together,” but that would not happen unless the country reintroduced “real democracy.”
“I wish to see my country back to normal and not to be divided like this,” he said, adding he was not optimistic that the current government, led by prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, could end the cycle of protest and counter-protest.
Thaksin was overthrown in a military coup in September 2006, but elections more than a year later brought his allies back to government, angering elements of the old elite in the army, palace and bureaucracy.
Within months of taking power, the Thaksin-backed People Power Party (PPP) was beset by protests by the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which seized Bangkok’s two airports in late November and early December.
They gave up their siege only when a court dissolved the PPP, opening up a power vacuum which Abhisit’s Democrat Party –which includes PAD supporters –filled in a parliamentary vote on December 15, angering Thaksin loyalists.
Thousands of so-called “Red Shirts,” loyal to Thaksin, have staged protests in recent weeks to try to force out Abhisit, but so far they have struggled to replicate the organisation of their foes.
In the past few days, the Red Shirts have demonstrated in Thaksin’s northeastern stronghold, while an opposition party has filed an impeachment motion against Abhisit.