Question of status looms for ousted PM
Thaksin Shinawatra was travelling light. As far as the British government is concerned, however, he may have arrived in London yesterday with very heavy political baggage.
It's not about attempts to buy an English Premiership football club this time. The smiling politician has been overthrown by a coup in his country, accused of massive corruption among other things, and his arrival immediately triggered speculation about political asylum.
As of yesterday, he had not made any request, and his British hosts, while providing the best welcome he can expect, must hope that he will not do so.
There are plenty of reasons why No 10 Downing Street must be feeling uneasy about the prospect that former prime minister Thaksin might try to seek to live in political exile in the United Kingdom.
While he can call himself a political victim, future criminal charges or corruption probes can make things very complicated for Britain where international laws, bilateral relations or simple moral standards are concerned.
Thai sources said the British government surely would be happier if Thaksin stayed quietly in London, where he maintains a Kensington apartment and a luxury home near the Thames, on his normal visa. "On his normal visa he can stay quite a while and the British officials surely will heave a sigh of relief if he uses it," said one London source.
Thaksin and his entourage arrived at Gatwick Airport from New York yesterday on a Thai International flight. He was seen waving to his supporters while disembarking from the aircraft. He wore a dark suit, white shirt and a red tie.
He and his entourage were whisked away by private car and left Gatwick Airport via the VIP channel.
Thaksin was looking forward to reuniting with his wife Khunying Pojaman and their children in the English capital. His statement issued yesterday didn't signal an asylum intent - yet - just vaguely mentioning a "deserved rest" and charitable work.
The BBC quoted Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett as saying that Thaksin, who has business interests in the UK, had "chosen to come privately to London".
"This is a matter for the people of Thailand," she told BBC news. It was "not a matter in which the British government is engaged", she added.
She must be quietly hoping it stays that way. The Thai sources said an asylum request would create a political controversy in the UK. While Thaksin has admirers in government and diplomatic circles, his image among people on the street is something else. And there will be more to ponder if Thai authorities sought extradition on criminal charges.
Meanwhile, other sources said if Thaksin was given some form of political status in the UK, it would be extremely difficult for him to travel because he would then be subject to certain conditions that would limit his mobility.
"If he were to travel to France, and the Royal Thai government learnt about it and asked that the French government send him back to Bangkok, Thaksin would have to go through the complicated legal process of fighting the extradition charges," one source said.
The International Herald Tribune quoted Pansak Vinyaratn, Thaksin's former chief policy adviser, as saying Thaksin would rest in London before travelling to other countries in Europe for further recreation.
Pansak said Thaksin would concentrate on doing charity work for Thailand.
"Dr Thaksin, as of now, will take a deserved rest. He will be planning to work on research and development and possible charitable work for Thailand," Pansak said, reading from a statement that Thaksin planned to issue later yesterday.
Thaksin also called for a quick general election and suggested that the United Nations (UN) should get involved in the process to ensure fairness.
Although he fell short of making a direct plea to the UN to intervene, Thaksin told reporters that his Thai Rak Thai Party could secure another victory if the world body was to sponsor the election.
"We hope the new regime will quickly arrange a new general election and continue to uphold the principles of democracy for the future of all Thais," said a statement distributed by Thaksin's aides in London.
In a related development, eyewitnesses said two of Thaksin's children, Panthongtae and Paethongtarn, were still in Thailand.
Reporters yesterday called Panthongtae's personal number and a man claiming to be his personal aide insisted that Thaksin's son was still in the country.
He said Panthongtae was still keeping his normal schedule, adding that he had gone to his office at How Come Company before returning home.
Meanwhile, a reporter of a Thai-language newspaper saw Thaksin's youngest daughter Paethongtarn entering the Shinawatra residence on Charan Sanitwong Road.
According to previous reports, Panthongtae and Paethongtarn flew to Singapore before going to London with Thaksin's wife Pojaman only minutes before the military took over the country.
A lecturer of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science said Paethongtarn was still enrolled as a student and pointed out that she had one year left before graduating.
"Two weeks ago, Paethongtarn's mother sent a request for Paethongtarn's absence for going abroad and I think she will return to the country," he said.
The faculty will have its final examination on Monday, he added.