BANGKOK – Thai authorities accused ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of terrorism Tuesday, issuing an arrest warrant on charges that carry a possible death sentence for his alleged role in deadly street protests, and setting the stage for further political strife.
Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile but still has wide support among the so-called Red Shirts whose protests were violently ended by the military last week, responded that the government should be ashamed of itself for its handling of the crisis that left 88 dead and said he merely wants to keep Thailand from becoming a “banana republic.”
The charges are likely to intensify the political rift between those who support Thaksin — mostly the urban underclass and rural poor — and the conservative establishment and many in the middle class who agreed with the 2006 military coup that saw him ousted from power.
Thaksin, who fled abroad ahead of a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, is accused of being a key force behind the protesters who occupied areas of Bangkok for two months in their bid to bring down Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They accuse Abhisit of being elitist and coming to power through back-room deals and military meddling.
Though he has supported the Red Shirt’s cause, Thaksin denies involvement in the recent violence — which culminated in a military crackdown that left several protesters dead and prompted rioting and arson attacks.
“I don’t want to see Thailand turn into a banana republic, where one guy’s free to just push any button in the system and destroy whatever justice and credibility it has,” Thaksin said on his Twitter page Tuesday. “Don’t go around telling the world that you’re a democratic country. Be ashamed.”
Thaksin spoke regularly by video link in the initial stages of the Red Shirt rallies, which began peacefully. He has publicly expressed his support for the protesters, but has denied government allegations he bankrolled the movement.
After last week’s crescendo of violence, life in Thailand’s capital, which remains under a nighttime curfew, was slowly returning to normal. Residents weary of the unrest returned to shopping centers, crowded around street food stalls and picnicked in public parks.
About 1,000 Buddhist monks were to gather Wednesday for a ceremony where the anti-government protesters held firm until a final military crackdown left at least 16 dead and more than 100 injured.
The political scene, however, remained tense.
The Department of Special Investigations alleges that Thaksin committed, threatened to commit or supported terrorist acts in relation to the violence.
Criminal Court judge Krerkrit Ittarat said it was up to the DSI to proceed with the prosecution and coordinate Thaksin’s extradition with the Foreign Ministry. Previous attempts to extradite Thaksin have failed.
Thaksin is believed to hold passports from several countries and is based primarily in Dubai. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates have said he could remain there as long as he refrained from political activities.
There were reports Tuesday that Thaksin was in the seaside resort of Budva, in Montenegro, where he has obtained Montenegrin citizenship.
Veselin Veljovic, chief of Montenegrin police, said that “so far” his country had not received any request from Thailand for Thaksin’s extradition. He said Montenegro would “act according to the law” if such a request was made. He did not specify, but according to local laws Montenegro cannot extradite its nationals to foreign countries unless they are wanted for serious offenses such as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
With another Red Shirt leader agreeing to meet police Tuesday, nearly all of the movement’s main leaders were in detention or had submitted to questioning.
Before appearing before investigators Tuesday, Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said the government overreacted to the protests. He was voluntarily appearing because he has immunity as a member of Parliament.
“If the government thinks that dispersing protesters would defeat us, then they’re wrong,” he said. “Today the Thai society has to think carefully who the terrorists are.”
Thailand’s opposition is moving to oust or censure Abhisit and his government for their handling of the protests. An impeachment measure, which would need approval in the Senate, or a move to censure top Cabinet officials would likely be defeated if put to a vote. But debate was expected during an extraordinary session of Parliament next week.
Thaksin is regarded as a hero by many Red Shirts, who benefited from his populist policies during his 2001-2006 tenure as prime minister. The former telecommunications tycoon was convicted in absentia in 2008 of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison.
The Red Shirts have demanded Abhisit resign and call early elections. Earlier this month, he offered to hold elections on Nov. 14 but that offer was revoked when Red Shirt leaders made more demands.
Abhisit now says elections will not be held until the threat of violence is completely quelled — although he remains under pressure to call an early vote. His term expires in late 2011.