- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

BANGKOK Thailand populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra narrowly held on to his job yesterday, when a court voted 8-7 to acquit him of corruption charges.
In rejecting an earlier finding that Mr. Thaksin had intentionally hidden ownership of stocks worth millions of dollars while he served in a previous government, the Constitutional Court removed a cloud hanging over the popular prime minister since he took office in January.
A guilty verdict would have forced the 52-year-old telecommunications billionaire to step down and stay out of politics for five years.
Mr. Thaksin, who in recent days had begun to show the strain as he awaited the decision, told reporters afterward that it was time to forget the past, start the future.
"I knew I did nothing wrong?" Mr. Thaksin said. "I can start my work today without any worries."
Prasert Nasakul, the chief judge of the Constitutional Court, said the panel voted 8-7 to acquit the prime minister of charges he had concealed the true value of his wealth in 1997, when he briefly served as a deputy prime minister.
"We strictly abided by the oath we take in front of his majesty the king to be unbiased," Judge Nasakul said on national television. "If our judgment today disappointed you, I humbly apologize because we have to abide by the law and constitution."
Mr. Thaksin, whose fortune has been estimated at $1.2 billion, has claimed his failure to declare a portion of his assets was an "honest mistake" that resulted from confusion about the law.
Mr. Thaksin established the Thai Rak Thai, or Thai Loves Thai, party in 1998 to bolster his bid for the prime minister post.
He swept to power in a landslide in January, largely on the belief by voters that he could right the troubled economy, still reeling from the 1997 Asian economic crash.
He is the first businessman to serve as prime minister. As the leader of the coalition that controls the lower house of the 500-seat legislature, he has pushed a series of costly but populist initiatives, including debt relief for farmers.
He also is giving $22,000, a considerable sum in Thailand, to each of the country's 70,000 villages to promote grass-roots projects.
He has sacked officials who don't share his economic vision, most recently Bank of Thailand chief Chatumongkol Sonaku over a disagreement over interest rates.
But the global economic slowdown has made it difficult for him to deliver on many of his promises.
Mr. Thaksin has remained popular with the masses despite the indictment by the National Counter Corruption Commission. It charged that the prime minister hid his wealth, possibly for tax reasons. The panel never suggested his wealth was ill-gotten.
The close vote in the Constitutional Court reflected the sharp divisions in Thai society. The masses see the successful Mr. Thaksin as a potential savior for the economy.
But many of those in the middle class and academia believe a not-guilty verdict has made a mockery of Thailand's reformist constitution, which attempts to stamp out corruption.

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