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Fresh Political Uncertainties Lie on Thai Political Horizon


A Thai Supreme Court verdict last week against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, accused of abuse of power and concealing his wealth, has eased the political uncertainty that had gripped the country in recent months. But, new uncertainties have emerged as pro-Thaksin supporters vow to mobilize against the government to force new elections, as a way to bring Thaksin back to power.

The long-awaited Supreme Court verdict concerning telecom tycoon and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ended months of political uncertainties, amid fears of fresh protests after the verdict's outcome.

Initial reaction by pro-Thaksin supporters has been muted. But threats of protests this month against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government adds new concerns to an already troubled political landscape.

In a verdict broadcast Friday on television and radio, the panel of nine judges found Thaksin guilty of concealment of wealth and abuse of power by using his position to benefit family-linked telecommunications business.

The court called for seizure of $1.4 billion, about 60 percent of the more than $2.3 billion of family assets frozen by the state after Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006.

Thaksin faces a new round of legal cases against him and family members on charges ranging from tax avoidance to perjury.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pasuk Pongpaichit says the verdict ended months of uncertainty surrounding Thailland.

"Things are clearer now about what is going to happen to Mr. Thaksin. It would be very difficult for him to return to fight through his supporters here. I suspect that he will not be able to recoup any of these back," she said.

While in power for five years, Thaksin drew his support from urban and rural poor and working class people who benefited from his populist policies of low-cost health care and rural development programs.

But the urban middle and upper class accuse him of abuse of power, attacks on the media and human rights abuses. He has been in exile since 2008 to avoid a corruption verdict in absentia that sentenced him to two years jail.

In Bangkok's working-class suburb, Klong Toey, opinions were divided about the verdict. Public-opinion polls indicate fears of further potential political tension, with a majority calling for Thaksin not to appeal the decision.

Chakra Silapanongchuk, a Bangkok a taxi driver who supported the verdict, said the court ruling proved Thaksin had been corrupt, and how the former leader had used his business knowledge to carry out the corruption.

But others, such as motorbike taxi driver Sompon, said many Thais still support Thaksin, especially those from the pro-Thaskin United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship or UDD, also identified by the group's wearing of red shirts.

Sompon says he believes Thaksin faces many legal hurdles, but he is still loved by many red-shirt supporters. He said Thaksin's Peua Thai Party would win an election over the Democrat Party leader, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Political economist Pasuk Pongpaichit agrees. She says the verdict will act to draw more 'grassroots' sympathy for Thaksin. "If you go and talk to people at the ground level this verdict has actually increased sympathy to Mr. Thaksin among his supporters. So in other words he has not lost any support. So this political asset in terms of his supporters has actually increased," said Pasuk.

The UDD say it will mobilize protests against Prime Minister Abhisit's government with the goal of forcing the government to resign. Some observers fear violence, while others say it will be a major test for both the UDD's support base and for the government's survival.

Kudeb Saikrajang is a member of the parliamentary opposition Peua Thai Party who believes underlying sympathy for Thaksin triggered by the verdict will draw more people to the protests. "If they can mobilize people and stay for a while, I think the government has to make it clear when they are going, otherwise they cannot rule. Neutral people will ask then what they will do. I think the best way is to dissolve the house; then the government can save face," said Kudeb.

The protests are expected to see a return to the larger street demonstrations that were at the heart of the pro-Thaksin movement in early 2009. In April 2009 protests in Bangkok and a seaside resort where red-shirt protesters crashed a conference hall of regional leaders forcing the gathering to be canceled. Troops were called out to quell the protests.

For the city of Bangkok, questions remain whether fresh street protests will end peacefully or push the government to again use emergency legislation to quell violence.

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