By Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Days before Thailand’s first election in eight years, authorities told BenarNews on Wednesday they would seek extradition of exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra only if they have clear information about his current location.
The businessman who remains deeply popular in Thailand despite a corruption conviction was expected to visit Hong Kong this weekend for a family wedding, according to his social media.
Responding to media reports that the Thai government would ask Hong Kong to aid in Thaksin’s return, Chatchom Akkapin, chief of foreign affairs at the attorney general’s office in Bangkok, said that his whereabouts were unknown and that Thailand “did not ask for extradition.”
“We heard about the news and we contacted other country’s Interpol, but we found nothing,” Krisana Pattanacharoen, a spokesman for Thailand’s national police, told BenarNews.
“If we have clear information, we will deal with the agency involved – the Attorney General’s office – to seek extradition,” he said. Officials have made similar comments for years.
Thaksin served as prime minister from 2001 until he was overthrown in a coup in September 2006. He fled the country and has been living in exile.
His younger sister, Yingluck, was elected prime minister in 2011, the nation’s last election, but thrown out in a coup led by then-Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who took over as prime minister. Like her brother, she fled the country and is expected to attend the wedding in Hong Kong, according to media reports.
Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty with Thailand, the South China Morning Post reported, adding that Thaksin has traveled to Hong Kong in the past to meet politicians from his Pheu Thai party.
Two nationwide polls from the first week of March – the final surveys conducted on that scale ahead of Sunday’s vote – showed incumbent Prayuth Chan-o-Cha as the voters’ top pick for prime minister, but Thaksin’s Pheu Thai as the most popular party.
Thai voters will go to the polls on March 24 for the first time since 2011 to elect a new parliament. About 51.4 million people are eligible to cast ballots, according to government officials.
On Sunday, nearly 87 percent of 2.6 million who had registered to vote early cast ballots, leading election officials to speculate that Thais are enthusiastic about the election.
On Wednesday during a visit to Sothon Wararam Worawihan Temple in Chacheongsao province, Prayuth, who turns 65 on Thursday, prayed to Lord Buddha to allow him to stay in office.
“May the nation, the religion and the monarchy stay safe. I want time to work,” he said. “We will not let anyone overthrow the key pillars of government.
“The government will be a bridge to 68 million Thais and make them happy and smile. That is all I want.”
The vote comes amid criticism that the 2017 constitution was tailored to give an advantage to pro-junta parties and Prayuth by empowering 250 senators handpicked by him to help the lower house choose the next prime minister. Those senators include military leaders.
To control the government, a party or coalition must win at least 376 seats – one more than half of the 500 seats in parliament and 250 seats in the senate combined.
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, said polls showing Pheu Thai out in front could be correct, to a degree.
“I think Pheu Thai will gain the most seats, but by a smaller margin. This election is different from the Thaksin era,” he told BenarNews. The long-established Democrat Party, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat and the upstart Future Forward parties could draw away its votes, he predicted.
Party leaders speak out
Earlier this month, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, posted on Facebook that he would not support Prayuth or Thaksin’s party.
“I’ll make it crystal clear: I will certainly not support Gen. Prayuth to retain premiership. Because the power grab causes conflict and contradicts the Democrat’s commitment to respecting people,” he posted.
As for Thaksin’s party, he posted, “The Democrat Party cannot align with the Pheu Thai because our political ideologies could not get along.”
He also called on the 250 senators to respect the voices of the people. The senators, because they were selected by Prayuth, are expected to give him a head start toward the magical 376 seats needed to run the government.
Sudarat Keyuraphan, who leads Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, responded to Abhisit’s comment.
“It’s a pity that the Democrat Party does not make a clear stand to join pro-democracy efforts to resist the dictatorship and its attempt to prolong its power,” she tweeted.