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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thaksin hogs limelight as Thai PM struggles to shine

By Natnicha Chuwiruch

BANGKOK | Tue Dec 20, 2011 4:46pm IST

BANGKOK Dec 20 (Reuters) - Thailand's jet-setting, self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is carving out a more direct political role for himself in government led by his sister, a move that could rock a fragile peace in his deeply polarised country.

The billionaire who fled in 2008 before he was convicted in absentia of power abuse has spent the past week visiting Cambodia, Nepal and also Myanmar, smoothing the way, he says, for an official visit to the former Burma by his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

According to the Bangkok Post newspaper, Thaksin said he was in Myanmar last Thursday and met President Thein Sein and retired former military dictator Than Shwe, although a source close to the fugitive tycoon told Reuters the visit was personal and no high-level meetings took place.

Despite his overthrow in a 2006 coup and his self-exile in Dubai, Thaksin, 62, has never faded from the Thai political scene and the landslide election win for Yingluck's Puea Thai Party in July has strengthened his hand.

He has been central to Thailand's six-year colour-coded crisis, backing two ruling parties led by his allies and the main focus of crippling street protests in 2007 and 2008 by anti-Thaksin "yellow shirts" and bloody counter demonstrations by his "red shirt" supporters in 2009 and 2010.

The latest moves, independent analysts say, may be counter-productive for the political neophyte Yingluck, who is trying -- with little success -- to emerge from behind Thaksin's shadow and assert herself as the real leader of Thailand.

It also risks striking a raw nerve for influential figures in the royalist establishment and the military that toppled him and crushed the subsequent red shirt street insurrections.

"Everyone knows Thaksin is the one controlling the new government from behind the scenes but no one (in the government) wants to come out and say it out loud," said Kan Yuanyong, director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think tank.

STEP TOO FAR

Kan said Thaksin, whose five-year ban from politics expires in May next year, had kept a low profile as a government advisor in 2008. But his latest moves to reassert himself, seemingly as representative of a country in which he is technically a criminal, could be a step too far.

"In the upcoming year, I think we could expect to see Thaksin trying even harder to come back into power," he added.

The Myanmar visit, which the Post quoted Thaksin as saying was to smooth the way for Yingluck's trip, followed a similar visit to Cambodia in September, a few days before the first official visit by his 44-year-old sister, who critics deride as his "puppet."

Yingluck held separate meetings on Tuesday with Thein Sein and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi while in Myanmar.

Thaksin remains loved and loathed in equal measures in Thailand and his latest activities follow moves by the new government to seek out legal avenues to aid his return.

Some ministers close to Thaksin have made no secret that they would like to see his conviction overturned, something that could re-ignite tensions in a country where he has powerful enemies -- who could move against Yingluck's government.

A proposed plan to amend an amnesty law that would have allowed Thaksin to return a free man was aborted by Yingluck's government last month after it prompted an outcry from the main opposition party and anti-Thaksin groups.

The opposition last week cried foul over a decision by Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul -- a distant relative of Thaksin -- to reissue his Thai passport after it was rescinded two years ago by a previous government.

Sukhum Nuansakun, a retired political scientist, said that although Thaksin was trying to assist his inexperienced sister, his prime motivation was to stay in the spotlight.

"It's not like he would be in competition with his sister," he said. "He wants everyone to see that he still has a role in this new government." (Writing and additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Ed Lane)

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