Thaksin Shinawatra, Shooting To Win

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 5 December 2007

Thaksin Shinawatra, Shooting To Win

Read the full story in THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE


Manchester City fans regard him as their saviour — but Thai investigators believe they can prove his government was responsible for a shoot-to-kill policy that endorsed mass murder. Andrew Marshall meets both Thaksin Shinawatra and the families of those who were killed under his rule

WHAT a difference a coup d’état makes. When the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, then the prime minister of Thailand, tried to buy a stake in Liverpool Football Club in 2004, angry fans waved banners reading: “Say no to Thai blood money”. The previous year, Thaksin had launched an anti-drugs campaign that had killed more than 2,600 people, many innocents among them. The Liverpool deal collapsed, and Thaksin – who, when pressed by journalists, could name only two Liverpool players – went back to his day job.

Then came the coup. Thaksin was overthrown by his own military in September 2006 and has spent much of his exile at a £4.5m mansion in Weybridge, Surrey. Here, he has achieved two notable things. First, he has spent £81.6m to buy Manchester City, a struggling football club whose grateful fans, unlike Liverpool’s, have embraced him. They call him “Frank”, because his family name looks a bit like Sinatra. “I really appreciate that you have accepted me,” he told supporters, before throwing them a street party in the city’s Albert Square, where he dished up free Thai noodles and sang the club anthem.

“Has anyone ever felt more optimistic about a new season?” one fan wrote in the Manchester Evening News, heralding the arrival of “Frank’s dosh”. (Thaksin gave Man City’s new manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson, £40m to spend on new players.) Suddenly, Thaksin’s violent past was either irrelevant or a positive advantage. “Mr Shinawatra was famous for cleaning up drug gangs and general low life in Thailand,” wrote a second supporter. “ManU fans beware. . .”

Which brings us to Thaksin’s second achievement in exile: with Man City’s help, he has recast himself as a wounded hero of democracy. “I was a democratically elected leader ousted by military coup, so I know the British people, as a mature democracy, understand my position well,” he said in August. “I am still very popular in Thailand and the military are trying to justify why they have overthrown me. There is no evidence that I violated human rights.”

The facts speak otherwise. Thaksin led a party called Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), yet more of his compatriots perished under his rule than under any other democratically elected Thai government. While twice elected to office by landslide majorities, thanks largely to his popularity among Thailand’s rural poor, he is no democrat. During its five years in office, his government stifled the media, intimidated political opponents and dismantled independent watchdogs monitoring his authoritarianism. People in southern Thailand blame his policies for sparking a continuing conflict between Buddhists and Muslims that has now killed more than 2,700 people. For millions of Thais, Thaksin is not the military’s victim but its facilitator: the man whose violent and scandal-plagued rule gave an unpopular military the pretext to seize power. Thaksin demolished Thai democracy; the tanks rolled in over its ruins.

Those scandals have pursued him to leafy Weybridge. In August, Thailand’s supreme court issued arrest warrants for Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, over graft charges linked to a £12m land deal. Three weeks later, another Thai court issued a second set of arrest warrants in relation to their alleged violation of stock-trading laws. The couple have denied all the charges. Also in August, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch branded him “a human rights abuser of the worst kind” and asked the Premier League how he had managed to pass its “fit and proper person” test. “He’s giving himself some respectability in exile,” says Chris Baker, the co-author of a biography of Thaksin. “It’s also a way of keeping himself in the public eye. I don’t think he cares very much about football.”

While Thaksin serenades Man City fans, 6,000 miles away bereaved families too fearful to speak out while he was in power now seek justice for their innocent loved ones. Thai investigators have reopened dozens of drug-war killings, while a new independent committee is scrutinising how Thaksin’s government implemented such a murderous policy. Officials from both the Office of the Narcotics Control Board – the government’s main anti-drugs body – and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) now claim that more than 1,000 drug-war victims are innocent of all charges.

Thaksin has blamed the deaths on inter-gang warfare. “It’s a matter of bad guys killing bad guys,” he once said. In fact, all fingers point to his long-time employer: the Royal Thai Police. An investigation by The Sunday Times Magazine reveals how Thaksin’s policy unleashed police death squads across Thailand. It also illuminates one of the murkiest chapters of his rule.

“If you want to be a good leader,” Thaksin once said, “you have to be a master at storytelling.” His upbringing in the northern city of Chiang Mai taught him about “the hardship of poverty”, or so the master storyteller claims. His great-grandfather was a Chinese migrant who arrived in what was then Siam in the 19th century and married a local woman; the family later took the Thai surname Shinawatra, meaning “does good routinely”. By the time of Thaksin’s birth in 1949, the silk business had made the Shinawatra clan rich and influential. His father was an MP whose businesses included two cinemas and a BMW dealership, and Thaksin attended an expensive private school.

After a two-year spell at cadet school, he entered police academy. He graduated top of his class. and in 1976 married Pojaman, the daughter of a high-ranking Bangkok policeman. He later received a master’s and a doctorate in criminal justice at universities in Kentucky and Texas.

By the time Thaksin left the force in 1987, he was already running a failing business, leasing computers to the police, and was deeply in debt. But a spell as a politician’s bagman, which involved paying off MPs with cash, had taught him that “money was becoming a major factor in politics”. Soon, by exploiting his connections, Thaksin had secured government concessions in highly lucrative telecoms businesses. Thailand’s booming economy boosted the value of his companies, and in 2001 he first appeared on the Forbes rich list, with an estimated worth of $1.2 billion. He channelled part of this enormous wealth into his new political party, Thais Love Thais, and was swept into office in 2001.

Populist schemes such as cheap healthcare guaranteed his re-election four years later. So long as their economy prospered, most Thais were willing to overlook Thaksin’s autocratic style. His downfall began in early 2006, when his family sold its shares in Shin Corp, the telecoms giant he founded, for a cool $1.9 billion to the Singaporean government. Urban Thais accused the family of avoiding tax and selling a national asset to a foreign country, and street demonstrations swelled. Then the tanks rolled in. Thaksin was in New York, preparing to address the United Nations, when his own generals seized power in Bangkok. Fearing for his safety, he has never returned to Thailand.

Now the grim reckoning begins. Take southern Thailand, a region largely populated by Malay-speaking Muslims. Thaksin scrapped a key peace-and-development agency credited with keeping a lid on a century-old rebellion there. The violence that then erupted has now claimed more than 2,500 lives. After the notorious Tak Bai incident in 2004, when 85 Muslim protesters were either shot or suffocated to death in army trucks, Thaksin praised the Thai security forces for “adhering to my instructions”. To this day, police and soldiers who commit human-rights abuses in southern Thailand are granted immunity from prosecution by a Thaksin-era emergency law.

Then there was the “war on drugs”, another potential vote-winner. For years, ya ba, or “crazy medicine”, a cheap and highly addictive methamphetamine, had ripped through Thailand. By 2003, ya ba had 2m occasional and 500,000 regular users, according to Thai health and anti-drugs officials. In a notorious speech, Thaksin inflated these figures: “Almost 3m Thai children take drugs, and around 700,000 are seriously addicted… The drug sellers have been ruthless with the Thai people… so if we are ruthless with them, it is not a big deal.”

His audience was then left in no doubt what “ruthless” meant. Thaksin praised the efforts of Kalasin, a province that had declared itself drug-free after a campaign in which the corpses of suspected dealers were publicly displayed to warn others. “Sometimes people were shot dead and had their assets seized as well,” he went on.

“I think we have to be equally ruthless.” Then he urged police to “use hammer and fist; that is, act decisively and without mercy… If some drug traders die, it will be a common thing”.

Human Rights Watch condemned what it called this “endorsement of extreme violence”. Thaksin’s men echoed it. Drug dealers “will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace”, vowed his interior minister, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha. “Who cares? They are destroying our country.”

Police and local authorities drew up so-called “blacklists” of drug suspects, which were submitted to the Interior Ministry. The Sunday Times Magazine has obtained an official letter sent by the ministry to provincial governors, explaining the three ways to remove names from the lists: “arrest, extrajudicial killing or loss of life (death for various reasons)”. It continues: “Drug dealers are traitors to the nation. We have to get rid of them. Don’t give them mercy.” Vasant Panich, a member of the NHRC, believes this is evidence of an official shoot-to-kill policy. “It can’t be interpreted any other way,” he says. Police and government officials were threatened with the sack for failing to meet targets, and offered cash incentives for arrests and drug seizures.

The campaign officially began on February 1, 2003. Barely three weeks later, the Interior Ministry announced that 993 people were dead, all but 16 of them victims of “gangland killings”. Deaths were gruesomely tallied on state-run television. “The reports were boastful,” recalls Chris Baker. “It was the first item on the news every day. And you were told that everyone was a drug dealer shot by another drug dealer.”

Few were convinced. The Thai police are widely loathed for their corruption and brutality. Torture in custody is commonplace: a Bangkok lawyer, who in 2004 publicly accused police of strangling, beating and electrocuting his clients, was abducted and almost certainly murdered by police. In Thailand, the dividing line between police and professional gunmen is “so thin as to be nonexistent”, observes Baker. Some officers moonlight as hitmen; others run gangs of them.

The NHRC member Vasant shows me another document. It is a chilling letter sent by local governments to drug suspects. “The anti-drugs centre of Ban Paew district has found that you have been misguided and involved in ya ba,” it reads. “To ensure you will live a good happy life, you should comply with the following instructions.” The suspect is then ordered to report to the nearest health centre and district office for a medical test and special identification card. The letter ends with what amounts to an official death threat: “The anti-drugs centre of Ban Paew district will not guarantee the safety of those who fail to follow the above instructions.”

As suspicions of police involvement grew, so did serious doubts over the accuracy of the “blacklists”. They included many cases of “people trying to smear one another”, admitted Thai police chief Sant Sarutanond. “Some people might have been mistakenly blacklisted, perhaps due to the carelessness of officials,” confessed a senior anti-drugs police officer. Even Thaksin’s loyal interior minister, Wan Noor, had doubts. “Some people whose names are there have never been involved in drugs,” he conceded. A blacklist in one province near Bangkok included a lawyer who had been helping people charged with drug-related offences.

None of this seemed to faze Thaksin. “It [murder] is not an unusual fate for wicked people,” he remarked. “The public should not be alarmed by their deaths.” When an NHRC member reported the killings to the United Nations, Thaksin called his behaviour “ugly”. The same member received telephone calls warning him to “stop speaking to the United Nations or die”. Amid growing international condemnation, Thaksin urged his compatriots to “do away with the thinking of the foreigners” on human rights.

But some deaths – including that of a nine-year-old boy killed when police opened fire on a drug suspect’s car, a 16-month-old baby shot dead in her mother’s arms, and a pregnant woman killed in front of her two young sons – proved harder to spin. Before long, the Interior Ministry stopped releasing statistics on drug-related deaths, and even instructed officials to use the term “expired” rather than killed when referring to suspects. The government also set up a committee to investigate the deaths, although the police did not send the reports it requested until late April, when the campaign was almost over. By then, the Iraq war had begun, and the world’s attention had shifted to a greater carnage.

A total of 2,656 people were killed during Thaksin’s “war on drugs”, according to his own government. More than 52,000 arrests were made and 3.7 billion baht (about £50m) in assets seized. “We are now in a position to declare that drugs… can no longer hurt us,” Thaksin announced later that year. “Many Thai people now have their sons and daughters back.”

But many Thai people had lost sons and daughters for ever. Today, Sa and Kaew Phumala struggle to support two grandsons, aged 5 and 12, whose parents were murdered in March 2003. The parents had appeared on a police blacklist after leasing two trucks and renovating their house in Khon Buri, an impoverished rural district about five hours’ drive from Bangkok.

“People wondered where the money had come from,” recalls Kaew, 65. “They assumed it was drug money.” In fact, the couple had won 6m baht (more than £80,000) in the government lottery but, fearing robbers, had kept the news secret. One morning, their car was stopped by three armed men in balaclavas. One of the men shot them in the head.

The NHRC has investigated the murder of Nikom and Kanraya Ounkaew. Last November it called upon the police to clear the couple’s names and find their killers. The police did neither. This does not surprise Kanraya’s father, Sa Phumala, 70. “The police will never catch the killers,” he says, “because the killers are the police.”

The widely held assumption that the police were behind the killings did not come from nowhere. Many victims were shot after reporting to their local police station or district office to clear their names or surrender. In February 2003, villagers in Phetchabun province saw police at a spot where, hours later, the mutilated corpses of four farmers were found. “Please understand,” a local cop told one of the dead men’s children, “we did not kill your father. It was police officers from Lom Sak” – another district.

Only a fraction of the killings were ever investigated. “After a murder, police usually come round and ask questions,” says Sa Phumala, the father of the slain lottery-winning couple. “But they never came.” The most compelling evidence against the police comes from within their own ranks. Somchai (not his real name) is a detective – a lieutenant colonel – in northeastern Thailand. We talk at night in the kitchen of his comfortable home. One of his relatives was killed during the drug war, and he is convinced the culprit is a policeman.

“I think he’s one of my own men,” he says.

Somchai blames only a handful of murders on “bad guys killing bad guys”. The majority were carried out by what he calls “teams” from provincial or regional police commands. These death squads identified their targets with help from local police, who provided mug shots – blacklisted people were routinely photographed – and then made themselves scarce. Sometimes, says Somchai, beat cops were recalled to the station while the killers got to work. But they all knew what was happening. “Every day at the station we’d discuss the latest killings,” he recalls.

A few principled government officials resigned. Somchai wasn’t one of them. “There were only two ways to remove someone’s name from a blacklist,” he explains. “Arrest them or kill them.” It was the cruellest paradox: the less evidence against you, the more likely you were to be killed. “If you couldn’t arrest them, then how else could you remove them from the list?” he asks. “We tried to gather evidence. The ones we had no evidence against were killed.”

Once marked for death, not even evidence of innocence could change a victim’s fate. Police ordered Nikom Ounkaew to prove his lottery win with a letter from the government lottery office; this he did, but he and his wife were still murdered. The schoolboy Chaowat Suwantha, 19, had obeyed five or six summonses to the police station and district office, submitted to urine tests, and agreed to attend a five-day drug awareness course. He was gunned down on his way home from his last day at school. A police mug shot was found on his dead body.

What compelled these officers to kill? “They believed what the media told them – that the victims were all bad people who deserved to die,” replies Somchai. The campaign quickly gathered a homicidal momentum that only one man had any power over. “Thaksin could have stopped it.”

For years, the police force was part of the Interior Ministry, but under Thaksin it was directly supervised by the prime minister’s office. “I will take full responsibility to ensure these three months have real value, that they make history in dealing with drugs in Thailand,” said Thaksin at the time. Could he have been unaware of, or powerless to halt, the police-orchestrated killing spree he set in motion?

Unlike, say, the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London while seeking medical treatment in 1998, Thaksin was welcomed to Britain in 2006 on what the Foreign Office called a “private visit”. “I’m very happy in the UK,” he told me when we met in London in October. “The people are friendly.”

Thaksin is a small and quietly spoken man. Being notoriously thin-skinned, he doesn’t stay quietly spoken for long. While a charismatic orator in Thai, he speaks English confidently but badly. Our meeting was set up by the London public-relations firm Bell Pottinger. Its corporate motto is “Better reputations”, although Thaksin is happy enough with his. He boasts about being “very aggressive” in business and politics. “When you attack me, I attack back,” he warns me.

He has no regrets about the drug war. Like many countries, Thailand had (and still has) a serious drug problem. But does this justify killing 2,656 men, women and children? Thaksin now disputes this death toll, even though it was provided by his own loyal officials. “That is part of the smear campaign against me,” he says.

I show Thaksin the Interior Ministry document that the NHRC believes indicates an official shoot-to-kill policy. Immediately he distances himself from a policy for which he had once claimed to take “full responsibility”.

“If it were to be an order from someone, they have to be responsible,” he says. But couldn’t he have at least suspended the campaign, particularly when it became clear that the blacklists were faulty? “I, as a prime minister, I have so many things to do… I just give the policies… How can you [be] responsible for everything in the country?” It’s a bizarre and cowardly defence: I was too busy to stop the slaughter.

What about the dead children? The topic flusters Thaksin. He says that “just the one” child was shot dead by police during the drug war, but “can’t remember exactly how that happened”. To jog his memory: in the first month of the campaign alone, four children aged nine or below were killed, along with 13 teenagers, according to a list compiled from press reports by Thai human rights workers. But Thaksin prefers to focus on the “millions of addicts” he claims he has saved.

Thaksin also now denies ever urging the Thai police to “act decisively and without mercy” against drug suspects. “I never said that,” he says, adding: “It’s not because I ordered them to kill. What I said was, ‘We have to get tough.’ ” Thaksin is proud of his close relations with the police, but says he was never a beat cop who (the description is telling) “do a lot of patrol, a lot of killings”. He also admits that some police deal drugs, while others “may be doing” drug-war executions. “You think all of them are good persons?” he says. “No way.” But allegations of police brutality at the time were none of his business. “The police chief has to handle this, not the prime minister.”

A new investigation into the drug war is also under way in Thailand. The Independent Committee on the Casualties of the 2003 War on Drugs aims to confirm the death toll, compensate bereaved families and name the killers. Predictably, Thaksin’s legal team has challenged its impartiality. His chief lawyer has urged British people to “suspend their judgment” and presume his client innocent until proven guilty – a right withheld from those gunned down in Thaksin’s drug war.

Lawyers have suggested that Thaksin’s drug war might amount to a crime against humanity under article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), set up in 1992. Thaksin finds this funny. “I’ve done nothing wrong!” he laughs. “I just give the policy. The practitioners have to be responsible.” The human-rights commissioner Vasant thinks otherwise. “Those who devised the policy are primarily responsible for the deaths,” he says. Vasant believes that only the threat of an ICC trial “will ensure this kind of incident never happens again”. Thailand signed the Rome Statute in 2000 but, under Thaksin, didn’t ratify it.

Thaksin shows no remorse for the drug-war dead. Maybe he’ll never need to. The new committee can only forward its findings to the police, who are as unlikely as ever to act, or to the Department of Special Investigation, an FBI-like department under the justice ministry with an abysmal crime-solving record.

Thaksin vows he will return after a general election scheduled for December. Returning before then could spark a “confrontation” that might cause the junta to postpone the election, he says. “I want Thailand to return to democracy.” Then he will fight the corruption charges against him. Can he beat them? “Oh, easy,” he grins.

His loyalists have formed a new party and vowed to contest the December poll on his behalf. “The election is critical,” says Baker. “He’ll put a lot of money into it in the hope that he can gain enough influence to put the brakes on this judicial assault on him and his family.” How much money? Not counting an estimated $1.5 billion frozen by the Thai authorities, he still has over $4 billion, calculates Baker.

“I don’t have that much,” says Thaksin. “I’m worth two-billion-something US dollars.” With some assets frozen, his fortune is “shrinking”, he insists. But he still has an electoral war chest far bigger than any of his rivals. Thaksin denies that he is funding any political party in Thailand, a claim believed by few Thais, including his supporters.

What about his supporters in England? The master storyteller has written himself a new chapter as just another football-crazy billionaire, and for now most fans seem to believe it. But if you Google “Manchester City” and “human rights” these days, you get about 70,000 hits, a fact no amount of free noodles can obscure.

“I don’t want to spoil the party,” writes one fan in the Manchester Evening News, “but what happens… if this foreign fugitive really turns out to be an international criminal? I just hope we all don’t finish up with egg on our faces in a few months’ time. Naive is too mild a word.”

Read the full story in THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE

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