OPINION: Will Shinawatras stir the political pot from abroad?

Jintana Panyaarvudh, Kasamakorn Chanwanpen
Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

BANGKOK(The Nation/ANN) -  Siblings Thaksin and Yingluck, fugitives from justice, will reunite somewhere abroad. But will they join hands to turn the world against Thailand, or emerge as a threat to the junta?

The dust has yet to settle on the dramatic escape of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra late last month and the whole speculation about her whereabouts. All leads point to the former PM joining her brother in exile in either Dubai or London.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha revealed on Thursday that according to information he had received Yingluck was in Dubai. 

Dubbed “The City of Superlatives”, Dubai was not a surprise choice for Yingluck to escape the Thai justice system. Her brother, former PM Thaksin, has a villa in the Gulf city whose stunning growth from a sleepy port to a world-famous business crossroads within a single generation has been a spectacular success story.

Thaksin chose Dubai as his home base in 2008 because of its convenience, Isra News Agency quoted from “Conversations with Thaksin”, a book written by American Tom Plate, who interviewed him in 2010.

Thaksin was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail in 2008 for conflict of interest during his five years in office. 

The residence is located in the exclusive Emirates Hills, a gated community in Dubai named after Beverly Hills. Emirates Hills is largely home to the expatriate community of Dubai, as it consists of the first freehold properties that were sold in the city.

The 68-year-old former PM told the author he likes Dubai as he feel like he is at the centre of the world. From there, he can travel around the world and as it is not too far from Thailand, his families and friends can also visit him.

The book described his house as a seven-bedroom, two-storey-plus-basement villa with adequate room to accommodate the occasional visiting relative.

During the past decade, Thaksin has always welcomed visits from his family, many of his former MPs and supporters at his villa. 

If government information is to be believed, this is the second time the Shinawatra siblings had reunited after his sister was toppled by the coup in May 2014.

The elder brother and sister reunited in July 2014 for the first time in Paris for Thaksin’s 65th birthday celebrations. Yingluck was permitted by the junta to go on a 20-day trip to Europe. 

But it is believed Thailand’s first female prime minister may not be too comfortable in the heat of the Gulf country where temperatures fluctuate between 10 degrees Celsius in winter to 48 degrees in the scorching summer. Yingluck may prefer to spend her time in London, which has a climate very different from Dubai.

CNN and Reuters reported that Yingluck is now in London and seeking asylum there, although the government contradicted that report. Speculation that Yingluck may choose the UK for life in exile makes sense, as Thaksin owns a manor in Surrey, near London, worth more than Bt260 million.

Recently, Thaksin’s daughters Pintongta and Paetongtarn posted their photos with their father in London since September 15 on social media. However, there is still no sign of Yingluck.

Irrespective of which city the two siblings set up their base in, their political future appears dim. 

The door for a political comeback seems to have been almost shut on the two siblings after a new organic law on the criminal procedures for political office holders came into effect last Friday.

If the 50-year-old Yingluck wants to appeal against her five-year imprisonment sentence for negligence in preventing corruption and irregularities in her government rice-pledging scheme, she will be required to appear in court in person. An arrest warrant has been issued for her after her conviction.

The law also affects Thaksin as it allows the prosecution to ask the court to bring four cases related to him for trial in the court in absentia and there would also be no statute of limitations for the cases.

Irrespective of whether they choose Dubai or London, the real question is whether the Shinawatra siblings, who lie at the centre of Thailand’s political conflict, would together make active political moves from abroad. Thaksin used the strategy of “turning the world against Thailand” in his initial years in self-exile.

Critics believe the two siblings have limitations in making moves to attack the junta.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, said that the recent remarks of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan seemed to suggest there was a deal between the Shinawatras and the military under which Yingluck would not to make any political moves.

“In the current political circumstances, the power and influence of the Shinawatras are limited by the military and the ongoing anti-Shinawatra sentiment, especially among the Thai middle class,” Titipol said.

Chamnan Chanruang, a Chiang-Mai-based political scientist, said Yingluck may avoid being as direct and hard as her brother, as she might be seeking asylum.

Usually, the country providing political asylum would bar involvement in political activity during stay in that country.

“Yingluck has been very much loved thanks to her sweetness and humility,” he said.

Only a slight move  on the social network could draw a lot of sympathy for her, which would be uncomfortable for the coup-installed regime, Chamnan added.

Thaksin had once confirmed that he had applied for asylum in Britain, but dropped the plan as it would have restricted his freedom to speak out. Aside from that, Chamnan also pointed to the Krung Thai Bank money laundering case involving Thaksin’s son Panthongtae. The fact that Thaksin’s son was currently being probed could deter the siblings from attacking the junta, he said.

However, Titipol said the Shinawatras would continue to maintain their relations with their international allies in order to pressure Thailand to return to democracy, despite the alteration of US foreign policy stance under the Trump administration.

“I don’t think the Shinawatras will fade away from Thai politics in the long term. Once democracy is resumed, there will be room for the Shinawatras to make their political moves,” Titipol said.

A top Pheu Thai Party figure, who is a close aide of Yingluck, told The Nation that Yingluck could end up anywhere. “International leaders love her. Her image [when she travelled abroad for international meeting] in their eyes is a strong person,” he said.

“There are more people who love PM Yingluck than those who hate her. She does not have to go along with Khun Thaksin. Both can travel separately,” the source said.

Her supporters are waiting for her first remarks. “I think once she settles down, she would explain her decision. She is a former prime minister, so she cannot disappear forever,” the Pheu Thai figure said.