What's Next for Deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra?

Sept. 22, 2006 — -- A police officer, business mogul, prime minister, and now, exiled head of state, Thaksin Shinawatra has worn many masks during his varied career in public life.

Well known in Thailand for his flamboyance, Thaksin probably didn't know what hit him when his visit to the United Nations on Tuesday was interrupted by news of a military coup back home.

His initial attempt to take back control and declare a state of emergency by calling a Thai TV station was rebuffed when military censors cut him off after a few minutes.

Later on Wednesday, he flew to London, where in a statement, he urged all parties to work "towards national reconciliation for the sake of our King and country."

His statement expressed hope that "the new regime will quickly arrange a new general election," but made no mention of any plans to return home and reclaim his government seat.

Such an omission is perhaps unsurprising, given the likelihood of criminal charges awaiting him.

The coup leader, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, gave an ominous warning of things to come, when asked whether the military would seize Thaksin's assets in Thailand.

"Anybody who has committed a wrongdoing must be held responsible," he said.

Sonthi announced today that he had set up a committee to investigate Thaksin's assets and that he planned to appoint a new prime minister within two weeks.

Thaksin's list of purported wrongdoings certainly seems long, ranging from possible election fraud in March to the most recent crisis involving the dubious sale of his stake in the telecommunications company he founded, Shin Corp., to a group of Singapore investors.

Many Thais were upset that the former prime minister had handed over control of such a huge firm to foreign hands -- and that he did so without paying any capital gain tax on the $1.9 billion deal.

Such suspicions have dogged Thaksin throughout his varied careers.

As a telecommunications leader, he built a business empire worth $1 billion, largely capitalizing on government contacts acquired during his days on the police force.

After becoming prime minister, he handed over the reins of Shin Corp. to his relatives, only to introduce a telecommunications excise tax aimed at pricing any possible competitors out of the Thai market.

As he battled allegations of corruption, accusations of being anti-democratic began to surface early on in his tenure.

In 2003, Amnesty International accused his government of allowing extrajudicial police killings, which were responsible for the deaths of more than 2,500 alleged drug dealers.

A year later, when a minor Islamic insurgency flared up in the south of the country, Thaksin's government reacted harshly.

Security forces gunned down more than 100 militants, most of whom were said to be carrying only machetes.

Even more shocking was the death by suffocation of 78 Muslim protesters, who were allegedly crammed into vans by Thai security forces.

Thaksin's response to the deaths turned the situation into an even bigger public relations disaster.

They died, he said, not because of police brutality, but because fasting for Ramadan had left their bodies frail.

His outrageousness is matched only by his weak stomach for dissent. The last two years have seen him file six defamation suits under the Shin Corp. aegis.

One of those sued was activist Supinya Klangnarong, head of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform.

When she censured Thaksin for his business dealings, Shin Corp. sued her for $10 million, equal to 2,500 years' worth of her annual pay.

By hook or crook, Thaksin has deftly headed off criticism in the past -- bouncing back from crises time and again.

In an interview with the BBC, Thai political economist Dr. Pasuk Pongpaijitr said that although a homecoming seemed unlikely in the short term, "there's always a possibility he'll return one day."

The only question is when and how.

Speaking to ABC News, a Thai embassy spokesperson said that "Mr Thaksin is free to travel wherever he likes and welcome to return to Bangkok whenever he wants."

As for any plans to indict him on criminal charges, the spokesperson said that "such decisions will be made by the new civilian government, not by the military leaders."

For now, Thaksin's professed plans seem limited to what his statement called "work on research, on development, and possible charity work for Thailand."

Given his yen for a showy lifestyle, though, it is unlikely that Thaksin will fade into the wilderness.

Like many deposed heads of state, he owns a property in London, based at the posh Dorchester Hotel.

He is reported to have one daughter studying at the London School of Economics, and another at a private school in the country.

He even made a failed bid to buy Liverpool's football club two years ago.

All of which suggests that he is extremely well-disposed to spending his exile in Britain.

Although the Foreign Office would not comment on the length of his stay here, a spokesperson said that "he would certainly be entitled to apply for U.K. residency, but there is no suggestion of him doing so at the moment."

If Thaksin chooses to stay in London, he will have plenty of company from the ranks of overthrown heads of state.

Constantine, the former king of Greece, has lived here since a military coup in 1967.

Benazir Bhutto, a former Pakistani prime minister, began her first political campaign from London, and now finds herself here again in exile.

Despite facing corruption charges in Pakistan, she continues to fight for power, even joining forces with former political foes.

Could Thaksin's plea for "national reconciliation" among all parties be a sign of similar collaborations to come?

Or will he assume the flamboyant "retirement" adopted by his fellow exiles from Southeast Asia, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, who escaped to Hawaii from the Philippines 20 years ago?

Whatever direction Thaksin chooses, he is unlikely to go quietly.

Speaking to reporters outside his London home, he said that he was here to "stay with my daughter. That's it."

Anyone who has followed Thaksin's career history so far, however, should expect his return to center stage before long.