But as the fugitive PM refuses to go away, the incumbent faces his own bus-deal challenge
What is former prime minister Shinawatra Thaksin up to now? And what is current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva obsessed with? Thaksin is licking his wounds. He has been lying low and is conspicuously quiet. After a failed attempt to return to power on April 13, Thaksin has tried to plot a comeback by overthrowing the Abhisit government. Abhisit’s obsession is how to hang on to his premiership as long as possible.
Thaksin’s immediate dilemma is how to unlock his sequestered money. More than six months ago, the UK authorities froze his funds transferred into the UK for the purpose of acquiring the Manchester City Football Club. Then Thaksin’s ultimate goal was to obtain a licence to operate a casino business. The Manchester City Football Club deal would pave the way for the licence.
But since Thaksin’s money came from dubious sources and under other people’s names, the UK authorities sealed off all the bank accounts until the real owner stepped forward.
These dubious financial shenanigans, believed to amount to more than US$4 billion (Bt140 billion), led the UK to ban the visas of both Thaksin and his wife Pojaman.
Apparently, Thaksin has accumulated more foreign assets than Thai assets. His foreign assets have not been properly declared. The main chunk of his domestic assets is the proceeds from the Bt76-billion sale of Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings of Singapore. This has also been frozen by Thai authorities, pending investigation into charges that he is unusually wealthy.
Thaksin’s untouchable assets in the UK have attracted very little attention. It is also difficult to get a grip on the story because these foreign assets are under the names of his nominees. Thaksin’s foreign assets also include his margin loans. The UK authorities have given the beneficial owner(s) of the frozen $4 billion six months to step forward and reclaim the money. The deadline now has expired.
But, by law, the UK banks cannot actually “take” the money without somebody, such as the Thai Attorney-General, coming up with a proceeds-of-crime application. The UK banks and also the UK government have been pretty upset that Thailand is not pursuing any claims with the urgency required.
So Thaksin’s best bet is to ensure that no formal and serious claim to the money by Thailand is made over the next year or so. The UK banks will then be unable to hold on to the money and Thaksin may get away with a fine.
But another complication to Thaksin’s attempt to reclaim the money is that he is technically not a Thai anymore. The Thai government cancelled his passport after he played a role in instigating political turmoil on Bangkok streets. Without a Thai passport, Thaksin would not be able to produce a Thai document to back the claim for his money from the UK banks.
We do not know what is going on with Thaksin’s money overseas and why there has been no attempt from the Thai government, particularly the Foreign Ministry or the Attorney-General, to pursue the claim. Remember Thaksin has never claimed that he has any money abroad. But then where did he get the money to acquire the Manchester City Football Club, which he later sold, and make all kinds of investment in various countries?
As long as Thaksin has the monetary means, he will continue to be the mover and shaker of Thai politics because most local players want to have a piece of the pie.
Now let’s get back to Abhisit. His immediate agenda is how to get an NGV bus deal through.
He said on Saturday that the NGV bus project must definitely be implemented. He said the project would benefit city residents but the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) has yet to study whether the 4,000 buses should be bought or leased.
He said the study by the NESDB, which is a non-partisan organisation, will allow the government to answer to the public why the government would go ahead with the project. He said the project was needed because the government could not allow the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority to continue operating at a loss. He said city commuters should also be treated to new and clean buses, which are environmentally-friendly.
While serving as head of the opposition, Abhisit tried to block this deal in whatever form. Now, he is using the NESDB to whitewash the bus deal. While Sophon Saram, the transport minister, has proposed a leasing programme for the 4,000 NGV buses, Abhisit and the Democrats are now tilting toward a purchase.
The NESDB would not screen this deal as it is supposed to do so in its capacity as the government’s think tank. Instead, the NESDB would lend support to this bus deal in the manner of a reliable rubber stamp.
Rumours are swirling that the commission up front for this bus deal belonging to the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority is Bt25 billion. The Finance Ministry might be brought in to provide a guarantee in order to lower the cost of financing.
That’s it for Thailand – with an ousted PM trying to secure the return of his money and a sitting PM trying to force his way with the NGV bus scheme that have nothing to do with the central policy to jump-start his economy via a more viable stimulus package.
By The Nation
Published on June 8, 2009