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Why did Thailand’s former PM travel to Fiji?

Bloggers are debating the significance of the recent trip of Thailand’s ousted Prime Minister to Fiji and Tonga.

Media reports claim Thaksin Shinawatra, one of Thailand’s richest men, departed Malaysia just ahead of arrest warrants and made his way by private jet to Fiji, where he entered the country under an assumed name known to authorities. He later met with Fiji’s leader Frank Bainimarama and advisors.

Fiji and Thailand have no extradition treaties, fueling speculation that Thaksin traveled to the Pacific looking for asylum. Before Thai officials asked Fiji to return the fugitive leader, Thaksin left for Tonga. Rumors persist he eventually made his way to Port Vila, Vanuatu while leaders of the four-country Melanesian Spearhead Group heard Frank Bainimarama’s five-year plan to write a new constitution and electoral law before holding elections.

The Vanuatu trip has not been confirmed. Thakin’s laywers claims he is not searching sanctuary; he is looking for investment opportunities.

First elected Prime Minister in a 2001 landslide, Thaksin's time in office was punctuated by allegations of serious corruption (often at high personal gain), authoritarianism, human rights abuses and electoral fraud.

A government body froze $2.2 billion of his assets in Thailand. In October 2008, Thailand’s Supreme Court convicted him (in abstensia) of abuse of power, mostly relating to pushing through laws aiding family members’ business interests. He was sentenced to two years, but has not visited his homeland since August 2008 to serve the sentence.

Earlier this year, Thaksin, who usually lives in Dubai, again ran afoul of Thai authorities when they accused him of directly supporting anti-government protests that turned violent. After protesters clashed with the military, the government revoked his passport, and Thaksin allegedly travels on a passport from Montenegro.

Fiji has been increasingly politically and economically isolated since April, when the country’s President annulled the constitution and provided the military leader (who himself came to power via a December 2006 coup) with a five-year mandate.

Since then, Fiji’s government has imposed a series of emergency regulations, aimed at controlling assembly and censoring the media. Thus, people inside and outside the country have come to rely on blogs for Fiji political information.

Cour Four Point Five reports:

[Thaksin] flew into Suva in his Learjet for a secret meeting with prime minister and military commander Frank Bainimarama on Monday.

The meeting – held in Bainimarama's office – was confirmed by Major Neumi Leweni, who said a business prosposal was discussed at lunch.

It's understood the Thai leader wants to invest $300million in Fiji.

In return, it's expected he'd be assured safety from extradition – authorities in Thailand are trying to get him back to Bangkok, where he faces two years in jail for abuse of power.

The blog Musings from Thailand wonders if Thaksin’s ends justify his means by meeting Bainiarama.

What a paradox. Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by a coup in Thailand in 2006, flew into Fiji's capital, Suva, yesterday to meet another coup leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who staged a coup in the same year — only to be ruled illegal by the court there.

In some ways, when Thaksin shook hands with Bainimarama to talk about his plan to nvest $300 million in that South Pacific island, he must have been reminded of Gen Sonthi Bunyaratakalin, whose coup sent him out of the country almost three years ago. Both the Thai and Fijian military officers weren't supposed to be politically ambitious. Both had been living low-profile lives before they decided to push out the elected, civilian governments. Suddenly, they declared themselves defenders of their respectie countries’ political stability and to fight rampant corruption.

Thaksin has spoken vehemently against military coups in Thailand. He has called for the return of electoral democracy, even ready to stake his life on his determination to put an end to future coups.

Now, he has gone to Fiji to cozy up to one of the most controversial coup leaders in the region.

Soli Vakasama, from Fiji, offers guidance.

This is an advice to you Mr Thaksin as you are also a victim of military coup stay away from Bainimarama or you will suffer the cosequences.

The Thai blog Connecting the Dots questions whether the former leader would be able to refrain from politics – a common demand of those who grant asylum.

When it comes to the issue of asylum political or other, that option is off the table for him for the moment anyway. For him to accept asylum means clipping his wings, and for the moment that is totally unacceptable. Thaksin’s goal is to regain his position as Prime Minister of Thailand, then make his enemies disappear forever. Then followed shortly after by stuffing his pockets.

Political asylum requires a few sacrifices to be made on the asylum seekers part. The first one and most significant is not to leave the country that is granting asylum. Once the person leaves the country protection could not be offered as they would be out of that country’s jurisdiction.

The second thing is the asylum seeker must become politically inactive or the asylum could be withdrawn. Once again this is not an option for Thaksin.

For Thaksin to give up anything is not his style so for the moment staying one step ahead of the people that are pursuing him is the game of today. So to travel under a false name or to visit countries that leaders think like him are Thaksin’s only options at the moment.

Thaksin would only accept political asylum if he were truly beat, but even then it may be like his April 2006 I quit story pulling a fast one.

Thailand’s press – and the media throughout the Pacific – provided near daily accounts of Thaksin supposed narrow escape from police in Kuala Lumpur before jetting to Fiji. The blog Bankok Crimes speculates that countries hosting Thaksin are ignoring Thailand’s extradition requests because of the government's weak case.

Every 2-3 days, this fine newspaper's headline reads; Thaksin is in Malaysia, Cambodia, Fiji, ad infinitum. Each and every country knows that Thailand wants him to be arrested and deported to Thailand. Each and every country refuses to respond to Thailand's request. Seems like EVERY country knows how bogus his conviction is. Most in Thailand also know this. If the minority get thier way and Thaksin is arrested and returned, the majority will rebel and he will likely not spend much time in the pokey. Then the current government's real problems will begin.
The govt knows this and really don't want him to be returned, but they love the continual headlines. That way, thier lack of accomplishments stay out of the news.

Many, but certainly not all, Fiji’s bloggers oppose the Bainimarama government. A post from Fiji Democracy Now on the blog Raw Fiji News sums up allegations of government criminality.

This was the story about how our dictator, Frank Bainimarama, met secretly with the fugitive former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
There is something very unsettling about the news that an international fugitive of justice such as Shinawatra was officially received at taxpayer expense by the current government of Fiji.
It’s confirmation that our dictator, Frank Bainimarama, turns a blind eye to criminality. And it confirms that if criminality suits his purposes, he will happily embrace it.
The criminal acts of Shinawatra and his wife, Potjaman, while he was Prime Minister of Thailand have been well documented by Thai courts of law, which saw fit to sentence Shinawatra to jail for corruption.
Yet the dictator greeted the Thai criminal like a visiting dignitary despite the fact that Shinawatra was in criminal mode, travelling under an alias on a Montenegro passport, as criminals do.
It was a meeting of two criminals who couid help each other.

Thaksin began his career working in Thailand’s police. After earning a Phd. in Criminal Justice in the United States, he rose to become lieutenant colonel in Thailand. He left the police in 1987 to work fulltime in his business plans, which rose from abject failures to building one of the most profitable telecom companies in Asia. Fiji’s bloggers point out the financial incentive of their cash-strapped government courting such a person.

Here is where we enter allegation territory. Coup Four Point Five and Raw Fiji News report that Thaksin may be interested in developing the Grand Pacific Hotel, a colonial building constructed in 1912 on the sea front near the edge of Suva’s downtown. The building has long been slated for restoration, but plans have continually fallen through. It now houses a garrison of soldiers, who guard government buildings across the street.

From Coup Four Point Five:

It's understood a deal was struck for Shinawatra to buy the derelict Grand Pacific Hotel at the meeting.

The GPH was supposed to have been developed into Suva's top hotel by FNPF and Fiji Investment Corporation.

Coupfourpointfive has been told Shinawatra handed over a cheque for $250,000 to [Head of Fiji National Provident Fund John] Prasad, reportedly a deposit for the deal. But it's believed the cheque wasn't deposited into the FNPF account by Prasad until today.

From Raw Fiji News:

It appears Thaksin’s Fiji venture has a probable hidden agenda. Thailand press speculated that Thaksin is bargaining for a safe haven for exile in Fiji and the final investment sum may never materialize given Fiji’s nose diving economy.

[Thanks to Markpeak and Mong Palatino for work with Thailand's blogs.]

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