- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

BANGKOK — Thailand’s prime minister has sold his company for nearly $1.8 billion to deflect repeated accusations that the family firm benefits from his position in government.

“My children made the decision,” said Thaksin Shinawatra. “They want their father to focus on politics and avoid public criticism about conflicts of interest.”

In a transaction bringing together two of Asia’s most powerful families, he sold out to a firm headed by the wife of Singapore’s leader.

Mr. Thaksin’s children and other family members will benefit most from the sale. Before taking office, he transferred much of his wealth to them. Since his election victory, shares in his company Shin Corp. have trebled in value.

The sale leaves Mr. Thaksin’s eldest daughter, Pintongtha, 23, who was the largest single shareholder, with more than $535 million.

The next largest holdings are owned by his brother-in-law, a family trust and his son. The two men’s payouts total $847 million.

The Shinawatra family and Mr. Thaksin’s in-laws, the Damapongs, sold 49.6 percent of the firm, leaving them with no stake or say in the company.

The main buyer is Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of the Singapore government, headed by Ho Ching, wife of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Before entering politics, Mr. Thaksin, a former police officer, transformed his family firm, which has its roots in silk traders based in the northern town of Chiang Mai, into a huge conglomerate.

Most of its interests are in telecommunications, including cell phone networks in several countries, satellites, internet networks and Thailand’s only free private television station. There is also an airline and finance company.

The announcement came after months of controversy surrounding Mr. Thaksin’s government, which has been beset by demonstrations, corruption scandals involving a new airport, and a public rebuke of the prime minister by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The Thaksin government holds a huge majority in parliament after an unprecedented landslide re-election last year.

One of Mr. Thaksin’s critics at the Nation newspaper, Kavi Chongkittavorn said: “I think it’s an exit strategy for Thaksin. Definitely he wants to reduce the political pressure by selling out, and it’s an indication that his political standing has been weakened.”

Mr. Thaksin is at times sensitive to public criticism and Shin Corp. has mounted a private prosecution for criminal libel against Supinya Klangnarong, 32, a media activist who made accusations about conflicts of interest that could put her in jail for two years.

“What’s really the hidden agenda?” she asked.

“It’s a perfect time to sell now, because they don’t know what will happen in the future in terms of the political situation,” she said.

She said Shin Corp. shares are being sold near their all-time high. “In terms of a conflict-of-interest solution, I think it’s too late for the prime minister.”

For its part, Temasek is planning to expand its investments in Asia, while Singapore has long punched above its weight in international diplomacy.

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