TOKYO– Fugitive billionaire and former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who plans to visit March 11 tsunami victims in Japan this week, had a chance to save thousands of people from the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004.
When a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Thaksin’s government in Bangkok, however, failed to broadcast a tsunami warning on Thai TV, or to notify officials in Burma, India and Sri Lanka that a killer wave was heading their way. Thousands died across the Indian Ocean, including more than 8000 Thais and foreign tourists in Phuket and Phang-nga provinces of Thailand.
This week, Mr. Thaksin plans to visit tsunami victims in the obliterated areas of Kesennuma and Minami-Sanriku in Japan’s Miyagi province as part of a controversial charm offensive to restore his international reputation.
Despite Mr. Thaksin’s conviction in absentia on corruptions charges in 2008, and allegations by human rights groups that he sanctioned the killing of thousands of drug users and southern Thai Muslims during his five-year rule, Japan has granted Mr. Thaksin a visitor’s visa.
Ousted in a 2006 military coup, stripped of his Thai passport, banished from exile in the United Kingdom and denied entry to many countries, Mr. Thaksin, a Chinese-Thai raised in Chiang Mai, lives in Dubai and reportedly travels on a passport from Montenegro.
Japanese Justice Minister Satsuki Eda said on August 15 that his ministry would approve Thaksin’s visit as a special case under the immigration control law, which normally bans entry of convicted criminals.
Japan government spokesman Yukio Edano’s comments last week that Japan granted Mr. Thaksin a visa upon an official request from the Thai government has sparked outrage among opposition politicians and critics in Thailand and Japan. They say Mr. Thaksin is attempting to use Japanese disaster victims to launder his image, in order to pave the way for his return to Thailand, where he remains the most adored, hated and feared leader in a political culture weakened by coups, constitutional rewrites, vote-buying and violence.
“Thaksin obviously wants to use the Japan trip to help facilitate a possible push for his amnesty later,” Tulsathit Taptim, Editor-in-Chief of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, told the Washington Times. “His Japan trip, however, is being viewed internationally as an unwise step that would weaken his sister (new Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra) politically. Even some of Thaksin’s own supporters are feeling that Thaksin should halt his controversial activities for his sister’s sake.”
After the 2004 tsunami, Mr. Thaksin tried to channel the outpouring of global sympathy to his advantage, and his party won a disputed election that opposition parties boycotted. On the one-year anniversary of the tsunami, Mr. Thaksin gave relatives of some foreign victims free trips to a ceremony he presided over in the devastated Khao Lak tourist area.
Most local villagers and foreign residents, however, chose to avoid Mr. Thaksin’s ceremony and instead joined massive crowds who released thousands of fire kites into the sky to symbolize the soul of victims going to heaven.
Mr. Thaksin also angered many tsunami survivors by putting up massive billboards of himself in the disaster zones in southern Thailand, which continues to vote against his cronies in elections.
A survey by ABAC university in Bangkok last weekend said 70 percent of Thais are against Mr. Thaksin’s international maneuvering. While most Japanese, especially rural tsunami survivors, have never heard of Mr. Thaksin, some are questioning how the Japanese government could allow a notoriously corrupt human rights abuser, who has been compared with Marcos, Suharto and Gadhafi, to follow in the footsteps of Japan’s Emperor, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and other respected world leaders who have visited disaster victims in Japan.
“With a two-year jail term waiting for him in Thailand if he returns there, I say Japan arrest him at the airport and stick this thieving scum bag on a one way flight to Bangkok,” said one commentator “Exportexpert” on a popular chat site in Japan. “He is a fugitive from justice.
But being that corrupt criminals run Japan, he will get a big welcome and afforded all the diplomatic privileges.”
Takanori Higurashi, chief representative of the Japan, China, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Institute of Economy and Culture, says that Mr. Thaksin, and not the Thai government, asked him directly to help arrange his visit to Japan. Mr. Higurashi says that although the institute has close relations with China, and China has good relations with Mr. Thaksin, “China did not ask our agency” to arrange Mr. Thaksin’s visit.
“Maybe he first wanted to go to China or the United States,” Mr. Higurashi told the Washington Times. “If he goes to the United States first, China will be angry. If he goes to China first, then the United States will worry. So he chose to come to Japan.”
He said Mr. Thaksin will give speeches at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand and the Academy of Japan on Tuesday, and he will likely meet with Japanese politicians on Wednesday, before visiting the devastated areas of Kesennuma and Minami-Sanriku on Thursday.
He said Mr. Thaksin’s “main purpose” is to visit the tsunami zone and donate money to victims. “This is the main reason why the Japanese government is allowing him to visit,” he said. “Of course he’s controversial. I know the opinions of Thailand. But democracy is about the majority, and the majority has decided to elect his sister. They say he’s guilty of corruption, but corruption is a politically-based charge.”
Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak at Bangkok’s elite Chulalongkorn University told the AFP that Thaksin’s moves are “provocative and not smart if he wants his sister to have a chance.”
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an expert on Thailand at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, also told the AFP that Thaksin’s moves are “too fast” and an attempt to show that he is the “de facto prime minister.” “The traditional elite and military will definitely strike back,” he said.