Amid the bloodied detritus remaining after the Thai army moved in April and May to quell red-shirt protestors unsettling Bangkok, and with the aftermath still unfolding, it has been all but forgotten that this is not the first time that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is accused of having plotted a government’s overthrow.
Mr. Thaksin, a fugitive these past two years after fleeing conviction on corruption charges, was a vociferous supporter of the red-shirt movement aimed at unseating the coalition government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Opponents charge that his involvement went beyond simple cheerleading to a more active role in fomenting unrest, and Thai prosecutors have signaled their agreement.
Thailand’s Criminal Court, acting on a request from the Department of Special Investigations, on May 25 issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Thaksin to answer to “terrorism” charges. The Nation newspaper reported that the warrant cites several articles under the criminal code – including the use of force to endanger life and freedom, causing the destruction of public transit systems and inflicting serious harm to the economy.
Mr. Thaksin has denied the charges. “I am fighting peacefully for justice…(but) have now been branded a terrorist,” he is reported to have responded in an electronic message. But such accusations are not unprecedented.
In July 1994 Cambodia pre-empted with a number of arrests what it said was a plot to overthrow the government. Those detained included 14 Thai nationals, with two other suspects among them escaping the country.
Senior Cambodian officials implicated in the plot included Prince Norodom Chakrapong, a former high ranking member of the royalist party who had defected to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. Also charged were former interior minister Sin Song and Phnom Penh police chief Sin Sen, along with several others.
The three main accused all eventually received royal pardons.
The Thais suspected of involvement were arrested at the airport while trying to leave Cambodia and obtained extensive consular assistance from their foreign ministry, but the ministry is today reticent to discuss the incident. “I am unable to make any comment on this matter,” a Thai foreign ministry official said after consulting a more senior colleague.
News reports of the period state that the Thai nationals were all linked, perhaps ostensibly, to the telecommunications industry. One was employed by IBC, a cable television company then controlled by Mr. Thaksin, and the others were with a company called Hi-Tech Antenna whose ownership is not known.
Mr. Thaksin was at that time a private, though influential, businessman. He was identified in published reports of the period as a key suspect in the coup attempt but the allegation has never been substantiated.
Details of the coup plot were expected to emerge during trial, but five of the Thais were released without charge after seven weeks of detention in what appears to have been a goodwill gesture. “The detention of the 14 Thais ruptured relations between Bangkok and Phnom Penh,” the Straits Times newspaper of Singapore noted in a report on their return to Thailand.
The remaining nine Thai accused were held for five months under what was termed “hotel arrest” before a trial that saw them hastily convicted and quickly deported. Around the time of their return to Thailand in November 2004 Mr. Thaksin entered politics as foreign minister under the Palang Dharma Party’s cabinet quota in the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai.
A senior Cambodian security official, speaking privately to this writer when Mr. Thaksin’s appointment was still the subject of speculation, stressed that Phnom Penh would suspend diplomatic relations with Bangkok if he was named foreign minister. Because of the failed coup attempt, he said without elaborating.
In the event, realpolitik prevailed.
“Thai Foreign Minister Thaksin Shinawatra flew to Phnom Penh Wednesday hoping to improve troubled relations with Cambodia over border skirmishes and alleged political interference. Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire communications tycoon who had extensive business interests in Cambodia before he became foreign minister Nov 2, has indicated that bilateral political problems will be high on the agenda of his meetings with Cambodian leaders,” United Press International reported on Dec 21, 1994.
“Accusations of involvement in the (failed July) coup by Thai military and business leaders, including Mr. Thaksin, have soured Thai-Cambodian relations.”
Mr. Thaksin’s tenure as foreign minister was, in any case, truncated as he was forced to resign after just three months in the post. His departure was rooted in issues relating to a conflict of interest between his private business activities and his position in government.
Both the allegations of Mr. Thaksin’s involvement in the Cambodian coup plot and these bothersome conflict of interest issues presaged more recent developments.
Robert Karniol is a veteran military affairs journalist and was Asia-Pacific Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly from 1988-2007. He is now a columnist for the Singapore Straits Times.