Thailand’s "Mussolini" headed for US?


BANGKOK, Thailand — The contempt of senior Thai figures for fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra, the country’s deposed former prime minister, can be measured in their World War II villain analogies.

Parliamentarians, leading pundits and the head of Thailand’s palace-advising Privy Council have all likened Thaksin to Adolph Hitler. This year, the foreign minister compared Thaksin to Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini. Thai courts have applied a more contemporary label: terrorist.

Despite his infamy, Thaksin is now the invited guest of legislators from the United States, Thailand’s most powerful ally. Though Thaksin’s enemies are aghast at the high-profile invite, they’re also praying America will smarten up and extradite him to a Thai prison cell.

On Thursday, Thaksin is slated to testify to the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a federal agency monitoring global security and human rights. Of its members, nine hail from the House of Representatives, nine hail from the Senate and two others represent the U.S. State and Defense departments.

“The invitation stands,” said Neil Simon, a Helsinki Commission spokesman. “The caliber of our witnesses is strong. What they have to say doesn’t always make leaders around the world comfortable.”

Ousted in a 2006 military coup amid allegations of extreme corruption — and more than a few Hitler comparisons — Thaksin is a former telecommunications mogul turned globetrotting fugitive.

He is fleeing a two-year prison sentence for a conflict-of-interest land purchase. Thaksin now floats between Dubai, various African nations and Montenegro, where his investments have secured Montenegrin citizenship and a valid passport.

He is also suspected of financing the Red Shirts, an anti-establishment faction devoted to toppling the current ruling party and forcing new elections. In April and May, the group poured into Bangkok by the tens of thousands, peaking at an estimated 150,000, to ring off parts of the city with barbed wire, bamboo fencing and an amateur security force.

After masked men fired on troops during a nighttime army raid, the movement was crushed by an all-out army blitz that left more than 90 dead. Much of the group’s leadership remains in prison or in hiding. The government has yet to lift a “state of emergency” that military leaders justify with the suggestion of a possible armed insurgency.

In Thaksin’s invite, the Helsinki Commission notes a lawsuit from Thaksin’s political allies alleging current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva “is guilty of crimes of humanity perpetrated during the crackdown.”

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), the commission’s chairman, requests Thaksin’s perspective on improving Thailand’s “human rights situation.”

The invite is a boon to Thaksin’s international image rehab campaign, crafted by D.C.-based attorney Robert Amsterdam. His law firm has released an 80-page study on the Red Shirts spring crackdown, cast as the “Bangkok Massacres.” The firm promotes Thaksin and his followers as victims of “political persecution.”

To encourage the comparison, Thaksin’s team has circulated photos from his August visit with a smiling Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa.

But unlike Mandela, who spent 27 years in an island prison, Thaksin has taken pains to avoid confinement. His U.S. invitation to help legislators expose human rights abuse has conjured his own scandal-ridden five years in office.

Human Rights Watch has counted more than 2,200 killings from Thaksin’s 2003 “war on drugs,” a violent police crackdown on a methamphetamine epidemic. Thai Muslims associate him with the 2004 “Tak Bai Massacre,” an army operation that rounded up Islamic protesters into trucks, where more than 80 suffocated in the heat. His critics further accuse Thaksin of manipulating the law to secure benefits for his cronies and relatives.

Still, concerns that Thaksin will erase his own misdeeds and dupe the U.S. are “pessimistic,” said Thani Thongpakdi, deputy spokesman for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We’ve provided the United States with our own information about what’s transpired in Thailand,” Thani said. “We feel our friends in the U.S. will see the broader picture.”

Thailand would not pressure the U.S. to deny Thaksin’s visa or nix the invitation. “It’s up to them,” Thani said.

But Thaksin’s visit also raises the possibility that the U.S., which counts Thailand as its oldest Asian ally, will detain Thaksin and honor a long-standing U.S.-Thai extradition treaty. (Any plans to extradite foreign fugitives cannot be disclosed, said Walter Braunohler, press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.)

Thaksin’s trip follows one of America’s biggest extradition victories in recent years: Thailand’s handover of Russian national Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” for allegations of global weapons trafficking. Nabbed in Bangkok by American agents posing as Colombian rebels, and later accused of heading a shadowy arms delivery network, Bout was released into U.S. custody only after intense diplomatic pressure.

According to communiques obtained by WikiLeaks, former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric John suggested Thailand’s initial reluctance to turn over Bout contradicted its intense efforts to secure Thaksin’s extradition.

In the cables, the ambassador suggested a phone call to Thailand’s prime minister from U.S. President Barack Obama would help drive home the urgency of Bout’s extradition.

The Thai media has raised suspicions of a behind-the-scenes deal to nab Thaksin in return for Bout. Abhisit, however, dismissed these claims. Abhisit told reporters the two leaders chatted only about Apple’s iPad device at their most recent encounter at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Japan.

Though no guest of the Helsinki Commission has ever been detained after testifying, Simon said that “people have presented here and gone home to pay a price for it.” Past invites have gone to rights activists operating in Russia, Kazakhstan and Poland.

“We always hope that when they return to their home countries, they’ll be safe, secure and able to express the same things they express here,” he said. “We realize that’s not always the case.”