The villa in “Emirates Hills,” an upscale district in Dubai, is a gleaming white color. The gate opens automatically, and a black Jaguar stands in the garage next to a large Lexus luxury sedan. There is a golf course and a lake nearby.
The villa’s interior looks cool. The reception hall is decorated in gray and beige. In the middle, two red orchids stand on a glass table, and a massive mirror dominates the back wall. Abstract artworks hang on the other walls, and there are oriental rugs on the floors. Everywhere you look, there is glass and chrome in abundance. Standing on a small table are framed photographs showing the villa’s owner with high-ranking Arab officials.
Then the owner appears in person. He is wearing a black suit with an open collar, and he makes his way down the curved marble staircase with a relaxed air. The man is Thaksin Shinawatra. The 61-year-old billionaire is the former prime minister of Thailand, the former owner of the football club Manchester City and a one-time telecom tycoon. But now he is living the life of a phantom. Thailand’s current government would prefer to see him behind bars. In 2008, a Thai court sentenced him in absentia to two years in prison on charges of abuse of power and corruption. The equivalent of roughly €1 billion ($1.4 billion) of his private fortune was confiscated.
When asked whether he will fight his case in person, Thaksin smiles and says: “There are no fair trials in my homeland. Not for me, and not for my supporters. So I’ll stay here for now.”
As he noted in a SPIEGEL interview last week, Thaksin would like to return to Thailand in December to attend the wedding of his oldest daughter, Pintongtha. Since the interview was published, the planned wedding and the eventual homecoming of this glamorous exile has become “the talk of the town,” writes theBangkok Post, a local English-language newspaper.
But nobody can really say whether that will happen. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in Thailand on July 3, and Thaksin’s sister Yingluck is running for prime minster as the candidate of the Pheu Thai Party, the country’s largest opposition party. Although Yingluck is currently ahead in most polls, she is opposed by a military that is not averse to carrying out coups, as well as the influential establishment in the capital city. What’s more, since there are multiple parties in the running, whoever wants to form the next government will probably be forced to put together a coalition.
Well-Traveled in Exile
Back in Dubai, Thaksin asks me to take a seat at the table. What follows is a four-course meal including Thai chicken soup, rice, curry and a glass of nicely chilled white wine.
Thaksin confesses that he felt quite foreign in Dubai in the beginning. Since Thailand declared his identification papers invalid, he has traveled on Nicaraguan and Montenegrin passports. But he has now purchased the house in Dubai. He has a number of excellent Thai chefs and is regularly visited by friends and relatives.
Still, Thaksin spends most of his time on the road. He says he often visits his “old friend” Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He also takes frequent trips to Africa — including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda — where he has invested in natural resources. “The continent is ideal for a newcomer like me,” he says. In fact, he says that the private jet he bought 10 months ago has been in constant use. “In 10 months,” he says, “I have flown on it for 750 hours. That makes 75 hours a month, or 2.5 every day.” During the flights, Thaksin, who describes himself as “hyperactive,” spends time online, organizing his business affairs via Skype.
The one place Thaksin hasn’t been in a long time is Cambodia. “Not since I was chased out by F-16 fighter jets,” he says. Many in Thailand have resented him since he went to work for his “good friend” Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, as an adviser. There is recurring friction between the two neighboring states, mostly to do with border disputes.
There are a number of highly sensitive issues in Thailand, and the atmosphere there is tense. More than 90 people — most of them Thaksin supporters — lost their lives during demonstrations last spring. Since then, hardly a week has gone by without rumors of an impending coup, and there are fears of renewed violence and unrest. More and more opposition members are being arrested on charges of having insulted the royal house.
As Thaksin admits himself, the controversial paragraph about lèse majesté in the penal code was also used during his term in office. He describes how he wanted to have one person who continuously criticized the royal house arrested. “But the king himself restrained me from doing so,” he says. “He doesn’t want the paragraph to be applied.”
Loyal to the Crown
If he does make the trip to Thailand in December, Thaksin says his “greatest wish” is to be able to show his “respect” to King Bhumibol on his 84th birthday. “People keep accusing me of not being loyal to the monarchy,” Thaksin says. “But that’s not true.” He explains that in 2006, just three months before the military coup, he hosted the celebration marking the king’s 60 years on the throne. “I personally invited most of the king’s guests because I wanted to prepare a nice party for him to make him feel happy and strong.”
Being accused of harboring anti-royal sentiments is a serious thing in Thailand. What’s more, Thaksin feels like his political opponents have denounced him. “The king is old and sick and stands above politics,” Thaksin says. “He should be left in peace and not dragged into current political conflicts. I was always loyal to the king.”
Thaksin claims that he himself has a lot of respect for the monarchy. “King Bhumibol was already king when I was born,” he says.