EDITORIAL: Thaksin controversy could spark new round of conflict

Editorial Desk in Bangkok/The Nation
Asia News Network

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Thai politics is cursed to always be haunted by ghosts from the past.

Even during relatively calm periods like now, something is usually cooking. A storm might be brewing already for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who sooner rather than later will have to respond to another inquiry involving her older brother. Another dilemma looms.

Another potential banana skin has presented itself.

The parliamentary ombudsmen have concluded that the Foreign Ministry's issuance of a new passport to Thaksin Shinawatra last year was wrong and, frustrated with the ministry's nonchalant attitude, have asked Yingluck to step in and do something. She might be able to delay her decision, but the issue will not go away. A lack of response from Yingluck, or her Cabinet, or the Pheu Thai-dominated Parliament, could prompt the ombudsmen to turn to the Administrative Court.

Once there, what now looks merely like a political firecracker could become a tinderbox. There could be all kinds of possibilities - court injunction of the passport, a subsequent appeal with the Constitution Court against the government's "unconstitutional practice", pro- and anti-government protests and so on.

The Foreign Ministry's stand is that a travelling Thaksin is harmless. It's a reversal of the policy from the days of the Democrats, but even if Thaksin uses his passport to make "innocent" journeys, Foreign Minister Surapong Towichakchaikul's relentless help for the man in exile contains other possible legal loose ends.

The ombudsmen might seek to force open a parliamentary disclosure of passport rules and regulations. The government could be embarrassed, but that should the least of its concerns. After all, the Thaksin-related crisis has already seen the late Samak Sundaravej removed as prime minister for being paid to appear on a TV cooking show. Which is more serious - getting paid for an appearance on a TV programme or helping a fugitive get a passport? It isn't too hard to answer.

Thaksin's Thai passport is as much about pride as it is about travel convenience. His fight for "justice" is as much about perception as it is about legality. But again, accommodating Thaksin is threatening to cost Yingluck a big political price. It seems that Thaksin cannot be rejuvenated without his sister looking weaker.

Some argue that the "Thaksin line" has been crossed many times already, to Yingluck's advantage. The government has never been held legally accountable for frequent contacts between its office holders and the fugitive former prime minister. A senior police official has even openly put up Thaksin's photo in his office, daring anyone to initiate legal action over his admiration for the man. The line is getting more blurred as leading countries welcome Thaksin as a VIP guest.

Issuing Thaksin a passport could, in a way, be described as a move to put all the farces to bed by giving them some kind of formalisation. But whether the Thaksin-related past deeds of government officials will help the Foreign Ministry defend its case, or whether the passport will open a new can of worms, remains to be seen.

One school of thought says helping Thaksin will get easier with his opponents in disarray. Another counters that the opponents had better be kept in disarray rather than galvanised by coordinated efforts to help him.

Which camp has the better analysis? It's not that easy to draw a conclusion. If the government opts for non-provocation and enjoys a smooth, trouble-free period, some people will always wonder if they should have exploited the situation a bit more. On the other hand, if provocation leads to something unsavoury, there will always be those who argue that something was bound to happen anyway, passport or no passport.

The "ghosts" are getting trickier and they are being made meaner by mutual mistrust, which is looking more and more like the biggest curse of all.