Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

Verdict on Thaksin billions unlikely to heal divide

Thailand's Supreme Court has confiscated much of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's family fortune, but, as the BBC's Vaudine England in Bangkok reports, the verdict is unlikely to end his appeal or heal the country's deep political schisms.

Supporter of Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, Thailand (26 Feb 2010)
Mr Thaksin still enjoys a loyal following in Thailand

Back in 1976, Dr Weng Tojirakarn was a young student leader in protests that ended with the military opening fire and killing many of his fellow demonstrators.

He fled to the hills, where Thailand's Communist Party offered a haven for many in the radical intelligentsia of the time.

Not necessarily communist, several of those activists have since become leaders of the red shirts, like Dr Weng. Some, such as Chaturon Chaisang, were even members of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's cabinets.

Equal rights

For men such as these, the Supreme Court verdict against Mr Thaksin's private wealth is of no importance whatsoever to the struggle.

I'm not fighting for Mr Thaksin. I'm fighting for my country to be a genuine democratic system
Dr Weng

"Mr Thaksin is just only one person in this country," says Dr Weng.

"He may be an ex-prime minister but he is nothing to do with what I'm fighting for, because I'm fighting for the genuine democratic system in Thailand."

Dr Weng wants a system where "real political power must be in the hands of the people and all man is created equal, every citizen must have an equal political right and also economic chance".

"But that never happened in Thailand," he says, adding that he looks to Britain or Japan for states where the monarch is supreme and democracy thrives.

"I'm not fighting for Mr Thaksin. I'm fighting for my country to be a genuine democratic system," says Dr Weng.

To that end, Dr Weng shuts up his small, poorly decorated doctor's clinic off a frantic highway in northern Bangkok every weekend and drives back to communities of the rural poor he once ministered to as a radical young student.

There he and other leaders of the red-shirted United Front for Democracy (UDD) hold what they calls schools, to raise the political consciousness of the people.

The arguments put across and discussed with varied communities focus on the injustice of the coup in 2006 that deposed a freely elected leader.

Genie released

These lessons have added pungency as they are delivered to communities that voted for Mr Thaksin, once they realised he was going to fund small businesses, provide cheap healthcare, and generally support his voter base beyond the urban centres.

To many in Thailand, that style of governance - where a shirt-sleeved Mr Thaksin, without pomp, would tour rural areas and listen to people's problems - was new.

Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, Thailand (19 Feb 2008)
2001: Elected prime minister
19 Sept 2006: Ousted in military coup
25 Sept 2006: Corruption investigation begins
11 June 2007: Thaksin family assets frozen
25 Aug 2008: Prosecutors ask Supreme Court to seize frozen assets
21 Oct 2008: Sentenced in absentia to two years for conflict of interest in land deal
26 Feb 2010: Supreme Court seizes $1.4bn (£910m) of Thaksin family's contested assets

But to some Thais - who cannot imagine that their servants should have a vote equal in power to their own - it was threatening.

Their preferred exercise of power has been through a strong military, monarchist bureaucracy - a system Mr Thaksin cut through.

The anti-Thaksin yellow shirt protesters who helped usher in the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva openly spoke of wanting a new system where some people's votes counted for more than others.

This is why a billionaire businessman and his cronies can be in the same alliance as men such as Dr Weng, all of them convinced they are fighting for genuine democracy.

"This is a united front - meaning we have to co-operate where we can co-operate. What we can't co-operate on, we put aside," says Dr Weng.

Analysts are agreed that many Thais are more politically aware these days.

They call it the genie that cannot be put back in the bottle, or the toothpaste that cannot be squeezed back into the tube.

They also note that the wellsprings of anger and the sense of disenfranchisement engendered by the 2006 coup are only growing deeper and more bitter with each setback to the man they regard as the only one who cared for them.

For this reason, any hope Mr Abhisit's government might have that the latest court ruling against Mr Thaksin will fatally weaken his support base, could be in vain.

'No rabble'

Some argue that a possible lack of money to fund further red shirt demonstrations could lose it numbers and damage its ability to stage massive protests capable of bringing down the current government.

Cadets in Bangkok, Thailand

Others argue the anger will only grow and fester, becoming more dangerous over time, with or without the money.

So far the red shirts are holding to their line that they are not the violent rabble the government calls them, and their decision to hold off on any protests until the middle of March is a principled one to reinforce their point that they are not lackeys of one rich man and his wealth.

Others say they have postponed the protests because they could not be sure of getting adequate numbers to the capital - an ability likely to be diminished with the prospect of less funding in the future.

Dr Weng and his colleagues say they have been developing a red shirt movement without the benefit of any of these frozen funds.

Mr Thaksin will not be alone in seeing the judicial actions as "very political". He insists he is innocent, and a fighter, and will not be deterred.

The latest court verdict against him appears unlikely to change the political balance much either way.

Nor will it heal the divisions in this country. Brought to the boil by Mr Thaksin, many of those divisions long predate his emergence, and are likely to outlast him.

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