BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's top graft buster said Monday the country'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.
Sawat Chotiphanit, the newly appointed head of a corruption committee, spoke to reporters after the coup makers began multi-pronged investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Thaksin and members of his fallen government.
"If we find evidence that they tried to transfer their assets overseas we will freeze the assets," he said.
Earlier, one of Thaksin's lawyers told The Associated Press that Thaksin, now in exile in London, would probably testify to prove his innocence.
Thailand's military rulers, who seized control in a bloodless coup last week while Thaksin was abroad, revived the country's National Counter Corruption Commission to investigate widespread allegations of graft under his five-year rule.
Thaksin and members of his government were given 30 days to report their assets, commission member Klanarong Chanthik said Monday, adding that the group was faced with "tons of documents and 10,000 unresolved (corruption) cases."
On the eve of the meeting, Thailand's ruling military council announced that they had also established an even more powerful commission, headed by Sawat, with authority to seize assets of politicians and their families.
The country's well-regarded auditor-general is also probing suspicious projects.
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.
Thaksin remained in exile in London, reportedly having given up attempts to regain power, and his wife Pojamarn left Bangkok to join him early Monday, a senior airline official said.
Suspicion has mounted that Thaksin managed to fly out some of his vast assets before last Tuesday's 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 in a statement Monday that the prime minister's office had chartered an aircraft for government business while Thaksin was traveling abroad. The flight, it said, carried 28 passengers and about 40 pieces of luggage.
Wichit Plangsrisakul, an attorney for Thaksin in Bangkok, told The Associated Press that Thaksin 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 been called in for questioning by the ruling council while others have offered to cooperate with it, including former Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, the deputy leader of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party.
"I have met and had some talks with him (Thaksin). He urged me to convey the message to our people that we have to halt all activities for the time being and extend full cooperation to the (military council)," Sudarat told reporters after arriving in Bangkok on Sunday from a European trip.
On Sunday, the coup makers announced that a nine-member committee will investigate alleged wrongdoing in the Thaksin administration, focusing on a number of mega-projects that some suspect were riddled with bribery.
"There is a sufficient evidence to believe that (members of the former government) abused their power to reap benefits for their personal gain, and caused serious damage to the country," the military said in a late-night television announcement that interrupted regular programming.
If it is proven that wealth was acquired illegally, the committee has the power to freeze or confiscate assets of the politician, his or her spouse, and children.
The committee, headed by former Election Commissioner Sawat, will forward cases to the attorney general for prosecution, it said.
"Good men don't have to worry, but wrongdoers will be punished," Sawat told television reporters Monday, adding he needed "wise and strong men" to help cope with the massive task ahead.
The military has cited corruption as one of the reasons for its coup. It also charged that Thaksin had insulted the country's revered monarchy and interfered with independent state bodies.
The former prime minister's family was one of the wealthiest in Southeast Asia even before he came into office in 2001.
The coup makers on Monday affirmed their commitment to long-standing policies favoring a free-market economy, the free movement of capital in and out of the country, and open foreign and domestic investment.