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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Safe and secure?

Security for the former prime minister is tight and he is guarded around the clock amid fears for his safety, reports Surasak Tumcharoen.

Thaksin Shinawatra and his son, Panthongtae, were escorted by bodyguards and close aides to the Supreme Court, where the former prime minister heard corruption charges in connection with the Ratchadaphisek land deal on Feb 28.

One of the reasons deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave for deciding to return home after 17 months of self-imposed exile was homesickness. He said on the day he returned that there was nowhere in the world that he and his family feel happy like in Thailand.

But is he really happy?

Since his return, Mr Thaksin has been guarded by a large security force and has to keep his whereabouts secret amid fears of being assassinated.

Mr Thaksin flew Thai International from Hong Kong to Suvarnabhumi international airport and was ushered into the passenger terminal for a routine customs check. He then stepped out to an open space to pay homage to his motherland by bowing to the ground before greeting the hundreds of people and members of the press outside the building.

Security measures for the former prime minister went unnoticed and were carried out in a strict and foolproof fashion, which was unusual for a man who had cited safety reasons, besides other reasons, for not having come home earlier.

Security for Mr Thaksin, who has repeatedly claimed he has washed his hands of politics and says he prefers to live and die in his motherland, has remained tight and unrelenting since the possibility of the former prime minister being assassinated could not be ruled out, according to one of his close aides.

Although unconfirmed reports about missing rifles from an army unit, which could possibly be used by snipers, were immediately dismissed by Metropolitan Police commander Assawin Kwanmuang, Mr Thaksin's close aides cannot afford to be careless and have maintained maximum security for their boss.

Hundreds of riot police, in uniform and plain clothes, have been on watch around the places Mr Thaksin has visited. They are on the lookout for possible assailants, including snipers hiding on rooftops or taking aim through windows in buildings. In addition to these "official" police units, dozens of plain clothes police and military officers have been working 24 hours a day to form an inner ring of bodyguards around the former prime minister.

While a dozen plain clothes Special Branch policemen mingled with the hundreds who came to cheer Mr Thaksin at Suvarnabhumi airport and outside the Supreme Court and the Office of the Attorney-General when he showed up to apply for bail, the "inner ring" of his security detail scanned the areas as though they were double-checking with the "official" security teams.

Mr Thaksin and his family chose not to stay at their residence in the Bang Phlad area, which is said to be under renovation. But it is widely understood in security circles that the house was not considered 100% safe for the ex-premier.

At the Peninsula Hotel on the Thon Buri side of the city, both police in uniform and the "inner ring" around the ex-prime minister maintained top security measures, not only inside the five-star hotel but along Charoen Nakhon road as well as on the Chao Phraya river banks where the luxury hotel is situated.

Road checkpoints were set up in the day and even at night while marine police patrolled the river throughout the two days that Mr Thaksin and his family stayed at the hotel, which is owned by Deputy Finance Minister Pradit Phathraprasit.

On the 35th floor of the hotel, bodyguards took turns guarding Mr Thaksin around the clock while his wife Khunying Potjaman and their three children stayed on the 33rd and 34th floors. They booked a dozen Grand Deluxe Suite rooms with each costing up to 160,000 baht per night. The entire hotel area was off-limits to the press and other outsiders who did not look like foreign guests.

Mr Thaksin quietly checked out of the Peninsula Hotel on Saturday morning and headed for an undisclosed destination accompanied by his bodyguards and close aides.

Mr Thaksin is believed to be staying at either a safe house in a classy part of the Sathorn area or at another house owned by a little-known relative.

For mainly security reasons, the former prime minister - who insists he has been unduly and groundlessly accused of various misconduct and corruption charges by an assets probe committee set up by the military junta - has decided to keep himself in a safe hide-out and remain out of reach of the press and possible assailants for the time being.

His close aides suggested that Mr Thaksin should not turn himself into a sitting duck for a possible sniper, so he has been obliged to keep changing addresses.

He had been scheduled to play golf with some leading figures who worked in his administration, plus pretty singer Saranrat "Lidia" Wisuthithada, at a course in the Bang Bor area of Samut Prakan, but Mr Thaksin was forced to call it off after his security men spotted an army of reporters and photographers at the venue.

Security for Mr Thaksin at the Supreme Court where he is scheduled to attend the first hearing in a lawsuit surrounding the controversial Ratchadaphisek land deal on Mar 12 as well as during his planned trip to his home province of Chiang Mai is expected to remain as tight and unrelenting as ever.

Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung was said to have steered Mr Thaksin out of possible harm's way after he had met a group of people, who some think may have been involved in a conspiracy, following a foiled bombing attempt near his home a few years ago.

Mr Chalerm said Mr Thaksin was not afraid of being physically harmed in any conspiracy, as the former prime minister was once a police officer. But few would agree.

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