Officials: Toppled PM May Have Removed Assets From Thailand

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Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra may have whisked some of his assets out of the country aboard two aircraft in the days before a military coup ousted him from power, airline officials said Sunday.

An official from Thai Airways International, who demanded anonymity because company policy did not allow him to speak to the press, said he wanted the new ruling military council to investigate the allegations.

CountryWatch: Thailand

Speculation has been rife in Thailand that Thaksin may have sneaked money out of the country in the days leading up to the coup, but there has been no confirmation from the council.

Thaksin departed for Finland to begin a foreign tour on Sept. 9, loading up his government-assigned aircraft with 58 large suitcases and trunks, the official of the national carrier said.

The prime minister's aircraft, named Thai Koofah, was then left parked in Finland for more than a week as Thaksin continued on his trip around the country on other transportation.

A second aircraft carrying 56 suitcases — an Airbus 340-600 — was dispatched from Bangkok to meet up with the prime minister just days before the coup, the Thai Airways official said.

The first flight would have included Thaksin's entourage, but it wasn't clear if there were any passengers on the second flight.

Another official in the airline industry, requesting anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, confirmed the second flight, saying it left on Sept. 17 — two days before the military toppled Thaksin in a bloodless coup.

It was unclear why Thaksin needed a second aircraft when his own plane was already assigned to fly him to Europe and the United States.

Speculation has surfaced about whether Thaksin knew of the coup in advance and moved some of his vast assets out of the country.

Asked about Thaksin taking his assets abroad, ruling military council spokesman Lt. Gen. Palangoon Klaharn responded: "No comment. I can't comment on that."

Thailand's new ruling military council says it will launch an investigation into alleged wrongdoing under Thaksin's government, which critics charge was riddled with massive corruption and abuse of power.

A spokeswoman for the airline said she was not aware of the incident "and even if it is true, Thai Airways would only report it to the (council), not to the media." She said company policy did not allow her to reveal her name to the media.

The Thai Airways official said it was not known what was taken aboard the second aircraft because only Thaksin's aides, citing security concerns, were allowed to supervise the loading.

"I want the (military) council to investigate this because we, the employees of Thai Airways International, believe that Thaksin exploited the company through his power as prime minister by using a company airplane to transport his assets out of the country," the official said.

Air force spokesman Capt. Pongsak Semachai said the Thai Koofah aircraft arrived back in Thailand several days ago, but declined to give the exact date.

Earlier, one of Thaksin's staunchest opponents, publishing tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul, suggested the former leader had chartered two Russian aircraft to take some of his assets out of Thailand.

Sondhi, a key leader of mass street demonstrations against Thaksin earlier this year, made the allegations a week before Thaksin departed for Finland, and repeated them the following week, speaking at a weekly public forum he hosts and televises on his own cable television channel.

"Russian cargo planes — big enough to carry four to five tanks — stopped in Thailand and loaded boxes into dozens of containers and took off. It is not clear who owned the stuff but the planes were given the privilege of landing before any other planes," Sondhi said.

A spokesman for the Russian airline Aeroflot told The Associated Press he knew of no such flights.

"No that didn't take place," Lev Koshlyakov, deputy general director of Aeroflot, said in Moscow. "I haven't heard anything about it. We don't operate charter flights of such kind."

Thaksin's family is among the wealthiest in Thailand, and in 2004 the American magazine Forbes ranked Thaksin as the 16th richest man in Southeast Asia.

In January, the then-prime minister sold the centerpiece of his empire — telecoms giant Shin Corp. — to Singapore's state investment company, Temasek Holdings, for a tax-free 73.3 billion baht (US$1.9 billion).

The head of the country's central bank, Pridiyathorn Devakul, has said the proceeds from the sale were probably still in Thailand.

"I estimate that no large amount of Thai baht has been converted into overseas currencies. However, I don't know whether the money could have been packed in suitcases and taken abroad," he said last week.

Thaksin and one of his children have stayed in London since the coup, while his wife and two other children remain in Thailand.