- - Monday, August 22, 2011

TOKYO — Thailand’s former, self-exiled prime minister is planning to visit tsunami survivors this week as part of a charm offensive to restore his international reputation.

Japanese authorities this month granted a visitor’s visa to Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and convicted in absentia of corruption in 2008. His younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, became Thailand’s first female prime minister earlier this month.

News of Thaksin’s visa, which was granted upon an official request from the Thai government, has sparked outrage among opposition politicians and critics in Thailand and Japan.

They say he is trying to use disaster victims to launder his image in order to smooth his return to Thailand, where he remains the most adored, hated and feared leader in a political culture weakened by coups and corruption.

Thaksin obviously wants to use the Japan trip to help facilitate a possible push for his amnesty later,” Tulsathit Taptim, editor-in-chief of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, told The Washington Times.

“His Japan trip, however, is being viewed internationally as an unwise step that would weaken his sister politically. Even some of Thaksin’s own supporters are feeling that Thaksin should halt his controversial activities for his sister’s sake.”

Human rights groups have accused Thaksin of sanctioning the killing of thousands of drug users and southern Thai Muslims during his five-year rule, and critics note his failure in emergency management.

When the 9.1-magnitude earthquake hit off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in December 2004, Thaksin’s government in Bangkok failed to broadcast a tsunami warning on Thai TV or notify officials in Burma, India and Sri Lanka that a killer wave was heading their way.

Thousands died across the Indian Ocean, including more than 8,000 Thais and foreign tourists in Phuket and Phang-nga provinces of Thailand.

After the 2004 tsunami, Thaksin tried to channel the outpouring of global sympathy to his personal advantage, and his party won a disputed election that opposition parties boycotted.

A survey by Assumption University in Bangkok last weekend found that 70 percent of Thais oppose Thaksin’s international maneuvering.

While most Japanese, especially rural tsunami survivors, have never heard of Thaksin, some are questioning how the government could allow him to follow in the footsteps of the emperor and other respected world leaders who have visited the disaster victims.

“With a two-year jail term waiting for him in Thailand if he returns there, I say Japan arrest him at the airport and stick this thieving scum bag on a one way flight to Bangkok,” said one commentator “Exportexpert” on a popular chat site in Japan.

“He is a fugitive from justice. But being that corrupt criminals run Japan, he will get a big welcome and afforded all the diplomatic privileges.”

Thaksin will give speeches at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand and the Academy of Japan on Tuesday, and will likely meet with Japanese politicians on Wednesday.

He is scheduled to visit the devastated areas of Kesennuma and Minami-Sanriku on Thursday. His “main purpose” is to visit the tsunami zone and donate money to victims, said Takanori Higurashi, who has helped arrange Thaksin’s visit.