August 17, 2009 6:25 pm

Thaksin backers petition king for clemency

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Thousands of supporters of the former prime minister of Thailand rallied in Bangkok on Monday, before submitting a petition asking the king for clemency for their leader, in a sign that deep divisions remain in the country.

The palace made no statement about what it will do with the petition. Analysts think a pardon is unlikely.

Supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra say petitions calling for his pardon have been signed by as many as 5m Thais. Anti-Thaksin groups have questioned the figure.

Mr Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon, was dogged by allegations of conflicts of interest before he was removed from office in a military coup in 2006. He has since been convicted in relation to a property deal carried out by his wife. He fled the country shortly after being sentenced to two years in prison and now lives in exile, stripped of his Thai passport and with much of the fortune he made in the telecommunications business frozen by the authorities.

The presentation of the petition, organised by the opposition United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship, to the royal household went off without incident despite fears that there might be clashes between the 30,000 Thaksin supporters who rallied and government supporters.

“We felt there had been a selective use of the law; that the legal process had broken down,” the UDD said.

Mr Thaksin still polarises the country, with his poor, rural followers in the north-east who benefited most from his populist agenda pitted against the Bangkok-based urban elite. The announcement that his supporters, who wear red shirts to signal their allegiance, were putting together a petition provoked a strong reaction from the government and bureaucracy.

They declared the petition illegal; encouraged local officials to mount a counter petition; alleged that signatories had been misled; and set up desks in regional centres where petitioners could sign another document to withdraw their signature from the original petition.

“I don’t think this [reaction] was just about Thaksin and his potential return. I think it was much more about the assertion of numerical power by the red shirts,” said Chris Baker, a political analyst.

The mass mobilisation of Mr Thaksin’s supporters has shown that the divisions that led to street clashes earlier this year have not gone away and that the government’s attempts at reconciliation have proved inadequate.

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