Thai military rulers may freeze assets of ousted PM if he tried to transfer wealth abroad

Monday, September 25th 2006, 6:23 am
By: News On 6

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Thailand's military rulers may freeze the assets of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and members of his Cabinet if evidence is found that they tried to transfer their wealth abroad, the head of a newly appointed anti-corruption panel said Monday.

The military council that ousted Thaksin last week also announced it would have a say in the creation of a new permanent constitution, reserving a political role for itself despite its vow to hand over power to an interim civilian government.

The military has cited corruption in the former Thaksin government as one of the reasons for its Sept. 19 coup, staged while Thaksin was in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meetings.

Suspicion has mounted that the beleaguered prime minister managed to fly out some of his vast assets before the coup. Airline officials said over the weekend that an aircraft chartered by Thaksin carried an unusually large amount of luggage.

The national carrier, Thai Airways International, said Monday that the prime minister's office had chartered an aircraft for government business while Thaksin was traveling. The flight carried 28 passengers and about 40 pieces of luggage, it said.

The former prime minister's family was one of the wealthiest in Southeast Asia even before he came into office in 2001.

Sawat Chotiphanit, the newly appointed head of a special investigatory committee, said Thaksin's assets and those of his former Cabinet members would be frozen if it appears they tried to transfer their assets abroad.

``If we find evidence that they tried to transfer their assets overseas we will freeze the assets,'' said Sawat, whose nine-member committee was formed Sunday night.

Its members include the heads of the nation's main financial institutions, including the stock exchange and the central bank, and it has extraordinary powers to confiscate assets. It will focus on several government mega-projects that may have been tainted by corrupt dealings.

``Good men don't have to worry, but wrongdoers will be punished,'' Sawat told reporters Monday.

Thailand's military rulers earlier revived the country's National Counter Corruption Commission to investigate widespread allegations of graft during Thaksin's five-year rule. The NCCC, however, does not have the power to seize assets and can only suggest prosecution.

Thaksin _ who is in London _ and members of his government have been given 30 days to report their assets, commission member Klanarong Chanthik said Monday, adding that the group is faced with ``tons of documents and 10,000 unresolved (corruption) cases.''

The country's respected auditor-general, Jaruvan Maintaka, also was probing suspicious government projects and was expected to be the first to produce results.

She said her office had finished an investigation into the questionable purchase of airport security scanners and construction of transport links to Bangkok's new international airport, which opens Thursday, and a report would be ready soon.

A thorough probe and prosecution of the guilty would be almost unprecedented in modern Thailand, where corruption reaches into the highest levels of power and wealth. Past efforts to seize unlawfully gained assets have petered out or been overruled by subsequent governments.

Wichit Plangsrisakul, an attorney for Thaksin in Bangkok, told The Associated Press earlier that the ousted prime minister and some former ministers were prepared to cooperate with the investigators.

``I have not yet talked to Prime Minister Thaksin and his family but I believe that he is ready to testify to clear himself,'' Wichit said. All the ministers he had spoken to told him they had committed no wrongdoing, the lawyer said.

Some of Thaksin's close associates have faced questioning by the ruling council while others have offered to cooperate, including former Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, the deputy leader of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party.

Despite the relatively peaceful nature of the takeover, the military has been criticized for curtailing civil liberties and has been urged to quickly restore democracy.

It promised to hand power to an interim civilian regime within two weeks and hold elections by October next year after a new constitution is enacted to replace the one scrapped when it ousted Thaksin.

But in a move likely to spark controversy, the military council said it would play a role in approving the next permanent constitution.

Several hand-picked civilian bodies will draft and scrutinize the constitution, but the military will retain the right to review it, said Lt. Gen. Boonsrang Niumpradit, the military's deputy supreme commander.