9 Mar 2006

Campaign against Thai PM blasts Singapore

Thu Mar 9, 2006 4:10 PM IST

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters trying to oust Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra marched on the Singapore embassy on Thursday demanding the city state scrap its $1.9 billion telecoms purchase of the business empire he founded.

The demonstration was peaceful, but a small bomb went off outside the residence of the chief adviser to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, slightly wounding a British man.

There was no immediate explanation for the bomb, the latest of several in Bangkok linked to the campaign against Thaksin but the first in daylight and the first to hurt anyone.

The embassy protesters, who accuse Thaksin of selling off national security assets such as satellites and phone networks to Singapore state investment firm Temasek, threatened to boycott Singaporean goods and services if their demands were not met.

The protest by the 2,000-strong crowd, chanting "Thailand's not for sale" and "Singapore shouldn't join Thaksin to rob Thailand", was an off-shoot of the growing push to oust Thaksin.

The campaign has taken off since Temasek bought a controlling 49.6 percent stake in Shin Corp from Thaksin's relatives in January. Other shareholders had until Thursday to accept a 49.25 baht ($1.26) mandatory tender offer.

The tax-free nature of the sale, which Thaksin said was intended in part to answer opposition charges of conflicts of interest, outraged Bangkok's middle classes.

He called a snap election for April 2 to try to neutralise foes who accuse him of corruption and abuses of power.

The three main opposition parties are boycotting the election, saying it cannot be free and fair as Thaksin has taken over institutions meant to be independent.

But, at least on Thursday, the focus of the campaign by the extra-parliamentary People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) switched to Singapore.


Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, urged Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long to "help address allegations of impropriety from this transaction and clarify any misunderstanding between our peoples".

"I truly feel the relationship between our two countries must not be jeopardised as a result of a single business transaction," he wrote in a letter to Lee.

Consumer rights advocates issued a list of Singapore or Shin-related boycott targets ranging from mobile phone firms to banks.

"We don't oppose foreign investment in Thailand, but we oppose foreign investors who exploit Thai legal loopholes by using Thai nominees to own national strategic assets of Thailand," said lead protester Rosana Tositrakul.

"Who would give a damn if they were buying a cake factory?"

The Singapore embassy said in a statement the deal was a private-sector affair executed "purely on a commercial basis".

"The Singapore government is not involved," it said.

Temasek, 100 percent owned by the Singapore government and run by Ho Ching, the wife of the prime minister, has not responded directly to the call by protesters to pull out of the deal, but has said it is happy with its investment.

Some in the Thai market are not so sure.

"It has become a political issue and we don't know whether there will be any change," said Solaya Sariyalak of Kim Eng Securities.

One veteran Singapore businessman said the boycott threat worried compatriots, who own a wide spectrum of businesses in Thailand from banks to breweries.

"This thing will affect us if it comes to full momentum," said the businessman, a resident of Thailand for 20 years.

"If they boycott the goods, we cannot sell products, deal with customers, so what's the point of being in Thailand?"

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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