International Papers

Thai PM Slips Baht Knot

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra “bucked the trend among Asian leaders accused of corruption” when a constitutional court acquitted him, in an 8-to-7 vote, of concealing assets, reports the Hong Kong iMail. Thaksin won a landslide victory in January’s general election, though he was already under investigation at the time (for more on the election, see this “International Papers” column). He faced a five-year ban from politics if found guilty. Thaksin claimed his failure to disclose his full worth in mandatory declarations was an honest mistake caused by a “confusion of rules and regulations.” The iMail said last Friday’s ruling “risks sending out a message to Thai society, and the world at large, that corruption can be tolerated in Thailand if the defendant is popular, glamorous and powerful enough.” The paper also worried about the narrowness of the decision: “To be cleared by one vote is hardly a vote of confidence in his integrity and honesty.”

The Financial Times was disturbed by the prime minister’s “disdain” for the court proceedings: He had warned of political instability if he was removed from office, his political party collected more than 1 million signatures on a petition declaring the country needed him as premier, and after the trial he lashed out at anti-graft agencies, saying they shouldn’t have the power to remove an elected leader. The FT asked, “What faith can outside investors place in Thailand’s judicial system if even the country’s leader belittles it?” Another FT story looked forward to what the prime minister will do now that the legal drama is over: “In clearing Mr Thaksin yesterday of all wrongdoing … the court has paved the way for a rebound in domestic sentiment, which could spur consumption. Yet with the distraction now removed, Mr Thaksin will be under even greater pressure to deliver on his promise of an economic revival.”

According to a Bangkok Post op-ed, some Thais suspect the judges of taking bribes of “several hundred million baht” (1 million baht = $22,000). The article noted that one of the judges revealed the verdict to the press 10 minutes ahead of the official announcement, suggesting that he “might have been afraid the head judge would not announce the verdict that had been agreed when the judges conferred and voted.” The paper called for a thorough investigation of all the justices, their families, and their close aides. The Post also reported that nine politicians who have been banned from politics for asset concealment want to oust the eight judges that voted in Thaksin’s favor.

Slow train coming: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s slow train ride across Siberia continues to obsess the world press (click here for an earlier report). Le Monde of Paris fixated on the train’s kitchen, claiming it was stocked with lobsters and “celestial meat,” known more prosaically as donkey, which is one of Kim’s favorite dishes. According to Britain’s Independent, when the “dear leader” arrived in Moscow last weekend, he visited Lenin’s mausoleum, “to which a guard of honor has been temporarily restored.” An editorial in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s priority is improving relations with the United States while undermining President Bush’s plans for missile defense. It speculated that Putin advised Kim: “[D]on’t act like the leader of a ‘rogue state’ and give American hawks the justification they seek for their costly anti-missile programme.” Meanwhile, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that the “famine-stricken Stalinist state, has told Britain and other aid donors that training world class architects is its ‘number one priority.’ ” A foreign diplomat told the paper that after a trip to Shanghai, where Kim was impressed with the city’s high-rise skyline, North Korean officials contacted his government with a request for architectural and urban planning training. When informed that they focused their aid on food programs, the officials offered to pay, despite a near-bankrupt economy and millions of citizens close to starvation. According to the story, Pyongyang is “littered with neo-classical follies,” the most prominent of which is “one of Kim Jong-il’s most public failures: a windowless, half-finished, 105-storey pyramid, conceived as the world’s largest hotel. Though North Korean guides decline to discuss the crumbling, rusting eyesore, or allow foreigners close to it, work has been stopped for years, reportedly because it is structurally unsound.”

The yard sale of the century: If you’re in the market for dinnerware, gold-plated light fixtures, or chandeliers, you might want to head to Brunei this weekend. A British auction company will be liquidating 21 warehouses of luxury items accumulated by the sultan’s younger brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, before his construction company went belly up, rocking the oil sultanate’s economy. The International Herald Tribune revealed that Prince Jefri “personally spent an average of $747,000 per day over a period of 10 years, for a total of $2.725 billion.” The government of Brunei accused the prince, who once served as finance minister, of misappropriating $15 billion of public funds. An out-of court settlement stripped the prince of his assets, though he still receives a $300,000-per-month allowance from the government. The story noted:

Rather than clarifying the finances of the sultanate, the asset sales and auctions have served to underline the fact that no one seems to know what is owned by the government and what is owned by the royal family in Brunei. With only very limited financial disclosure, the lines between the privy purse and public purse are at best blurred.

Reader recommendation of the week: Readers of this column are a loyal but relatively quiet bunch. So rare are reader submissions that I feel obliged to mention the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s “Bundesdance” feature, brought to my attention by Thad McArthur. Frankly, it’s a little bit mysterious, but it is August, after all. What better time to set German politicians dancing?