Shinawatra takes refuge during political turmoil

The journey from New York to Bangkok is one of the longest possible non-stop flights in the world.

Thai prime minister and media mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who was at the United Nations Sept. 19, must have been wondering whether it would be worth the trip after learning that a military coup had taken place back home in his absence.

Holed up at Gotham’s Grand Hyatt, he failed to get through on the phone. In a broadcast from New York he announced a state of emergency back home and fired the general at the head of the coup.

Thai transmission of the broadcast was cut short –Shinawatra decided to take refuge in London instead.

There are many ironies here.

Shinawatra made much of his $2 billion personal fortune from communications businesses.

One of his first jobs was in his dad’s cinema. He followed that one as a film distributor. And after leaving the police force he set up businesses which included satellites and AIS, the country’s largest mobile phone operator.

Maintaining his interest in the entertainment sector, he last year opened up Government House for the world preem of “Tom yum goong” (The Protector).

Shinawatra is said to have managed his cabinet and the country like the CEO of a modern conglom and on his watch Thailand enjoyed sustained growth.

But, like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, with whom he is often compared, somewhat unfairly as he did much to improve conditions for poor farmers, he failed to read signs of unrest caused by his policies.

Elections and promises of new ones were greeted with widespread suspicion.

Selling his businesses made matters worse, not better, as he handed control to a Singaporean fund.

Recently, there was more media interference. The former Shinawatra iTV channel was loaded with fines that pushed it close to bankruptcy and a string of newspapers that voiced disagreement were closed.

The country’s fast modernizing communications sector has since taken another huge lurch backwards with TV broadcasts suspended and many Web sites closed.

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