Thailand's former prime minister loses $1bn in ruling

As tension simmers, The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship plans to have a million-man demonstration in Bangkok.

BANGKOK // Thailand's former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, has vowed to continue to fight for justice after the country's Supreme Court found him guilty of abuse of power and stripped him of assets worth more than US$1 billion.

"No matter where justice lies - in hell or heaven, in Thailand or overseas - I did not receive absolute justice today, so I will continue to seek it," he told his followers in Bangkok, who had gathered to hear the verdict. The crowd at the opposition Peau Thai party headquarters, which Thaksin supports from afar, yelled abuse at the judges as they read their verdict on television. "Thaksin, fight, fight, fight!" they chanted at the end, many of them visibly angry and upset.

Their anger is likely to grow in the coming weeks according to analysts and diplomats and there are growing fears of violence in the near future. The Red Shirts, as they are known because of the colour of their informal uniform, have threatened to amass one million marchers in a few weeks time. At the core of the conflict is the growing division in Thailand between the nation's rural and urban poor, who support Thaksin, pitted against the established ruling elite - including the army - which he challenged during his six years in power.

"The country has never been so bitterly divided as now, and the rifts can only widen while the rural poor continue to feel a very real sense of injustice," said Suranand Vejjajiva, a former Thaksin ally and government spokesman, now a political columnist with the Bangkok Post. Mr Thaksin fled the country in August 2006 while on bail, before a court convicted him for infringing conflict-of-interest laws while he was prime minister and sentenced him to two year's jail in absentia.

The ousted premier, toppled by a military coup in September 2006, called on his supporters by video phone immediately after the verdict was read, to remain calm, and wait for a more appropriate time to resume their protests. "This case is very political," he told his supporters. "The court was used to get rid of a politician. The ruling will be a joke for the world," he said in his televised address.

The court confiscated $1.4bn (Dh5.1bn) in already frozen assets from the fugitive former prime minister after finding him guilty of illegally concealing his ownership of a family telecommunications business and abusing power to benefit the companies he owned; especially the sale of Shin Corporation to the Singapore company Temasek, the profits of which were tax-free. But they also ruled that he could keep the rest of his assets, which had been valued at some $2.4bn dollars in total before the court verdict, on the grounds that "to seize all the money would be unfair as some of it was made before Thaksin became prime minister".

"This is Thai justice," complained Malee Thisoph, 33, from Korat, a major provincial city in the desperately poor north-east of the country, which is Thaksin's main support base. She and her 60-year-old aunt had come to Bangkok to support their hero. "The court is trying to destroy Thaksin, and with it is destroying democracy," she said. "We are not here for Thaksin, we are here for justice." "It is not fair," said another Thaksin sympathiser, Niratchai Sunthonsak, 22, a college student and single mother. "But if the money is used for the country and not siphoned-off into the pockets of other politicians it won't be so bad. Anyway, Thaksin still has enough money tucked away abroad."

There is much speculation about the extent of Thaksin's wealth stashed away overseas. In a recent interview with The Times of London, Thaksin said he still had up to $200 million in assets offshore. Now all eyes are on the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Days before the verdict they decided to quietly, as they put it, mourn the death of justice when the court gave its verdict, but have pledged to resume their demonstrations next month with a "million-man march" in Bangkok.

"Our fight for democracy will continue," a Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan told The National on the eve of the judgement. But already there are signs that there is a battle within the UDD over future strategy. "We will close down the city," the international spokesman for the Red Shirts, Sean Boonpracong told journalists recently. In a statement released to the press on Saturday morning, he is now urging the UDD supporters to respond to the court's decision "with cold, angry silence". But there are others in the movement who are threatening to launch a violent civil war.

"We'll be back in two weeks time to support Thaksin again," said Ms Malee. "And we don't want any money from him. We just want him to come back." Security remains extremely tight in the capital, with extra police on patrol and soldiers stationed out of sight ready to take action if needed. "This is war," the government spokesman Panitan Watanayagorn recently told journalists. "And we are ready, with detailed plans in place, to cope with any outbreak of violence."

"This grimy saga is far from over," Shawn Crispin, the South East Asia editor at Asia Times Online said. He added that it was too early to tell whether the next chapter will start with a bang or just peter out. "The authorities are hoping that the divisions with the UDD will cause it to implode."