Goal in sight

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Mar 17, 2009
*Special to asia!

Deposed Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra’s money may soon find its way out of the country via a deal to buy a British soccer club.

Call him the “Ghost at the Feast” or “The Man Who Would Not Go Away”. Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed as Prime Minister of Thailand last September by a coup, simply refuses to fade out of sight, much to the distress of the generals who engineered his downfall.

On April 30 Thaksin was elected president of the Professional Golf Association of Thailand by unanimous vote despite that fact that he was not even in Thailand. Upon hearing the news, Thaksin said he would keep out of politics and use the money from his foundation to develop Thailand’s education and sports.

This has the marks of a come back speech, and a highly political one, no matter what Thaksin might say, by the telecom billionaire turned national leader.

Just when the generals were wondering what to do, Thaksin dropped another bombshell. He stated openly that he was in a somewhat a

dvanced state of negotiations to buy the venerable British soccer club Manchester City.

It is not an exaggeration to say the ruling junta of Thailand reeled in shock upon hearing the news. Being elected head of a Thai golf association may be bad, but it is still an internal event. Buying Man City transforms the Thaksin issue into an international event.

This is not the first time Thaksin cast his eyes on a British club. In 2003 he made an offer to buy Fulham FC, only to be turned down by the owner.

A year later he caused a huge stir by leading a team to buy Liverpool, arguably the top football club in Britain. He changed his mind after huge outcry from the fiercely protective Liverpudlians.

Buying Man City is comparatively easy. Though it is considered a good club—the 113-year old club has seen a revival in recent years and spent the last four in the 20-team Premier League—Man City is overshadowed by its neighbour, the more famous Manchester United. If it wants to get within striking distance of Man U, it needs a huge source of funds to buy good players, hence the warm reception to Thaksin’s offer. It is even said the club has consulted Thaksin on the upcoming appointment of a coach.

Thaksin has again turned the news into a political statement. In a live phone interview with a small Thai radio station—his first since the coup—Thaksin said he believed the purchase “would be very beneficial for the image of the country and also beneficial for Thai youth."

Perhaps. But it is definitely not beneficial for the Thai generals. Thaksin sold his telecom empire to Temasek of Singapore for US$1.9 billion, tax free. The deal helped to fan the anger against him and made the coup possible.

Thaksin has since fled the country but most of his money is believed to be still in Thailand. Under Thai law the government would need to approve any transfer of funds for the purchase of the foreign business, to which the Man City deal certainly belongs.

This has created a headache: If the government is to approve the Man City purchase, it would open a door for Thaksin to start moving his money out of Thailand. If it rejects the request, international opinion is likely to side with Thaksin and see the Thai government as a bully. Either way it stands to lose. There is, however, a third way: Open negotiations with Thaksin and allow him to take his money out quietly, which is undoubtedly what the deposed PM wanted in the first place.

 

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

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