sparking a denouncement by Israel’s embassy.
Thailand’s recently emboldened English language newspapers, meanwhile, have plastered their pages with anti-Thaksin stories rhetoric and vitriol. "F*ck Thaksin," read graffiti displayed in a front-page photo in the respected Bangkok Post on Thursday, March 23.
That hand-written demand appeared on one of the big, mass-produced "Wanted Dead or Alive" posters waved by protesters to needle Thaksin — a close ally of US President George W. Bush and a former police officer who received a PhD in Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.
The popular poster’s "reward" offers 73 billion baht (1.8 billion US dollars), the amount Thaksin’s family pocketed, tax-free, by selling their Shin Corp. telecommunications empire on February 24 to the Singapore government’s investment wing, Temasek Holdings.
The sale attracted allegations that Thaksin manipulated tax loopholes to enrich himself, and set off several weeks of boisterous but peaceful street demonstrations demanding his immediate ouster. Thaksin insisted he did nothing illegal, and that other Thai investors also use tax laws to maximize profits on domestic and international deals.
Most of the sale’s profit went to Thaksin’s family, especially his son and daughter. Earlier, when Thaksin became prime minister, he transferred many assets to them, and to household servants and staff.
Popular posters also portray the clean-shaven Thaksin with a Nazi swastika emblazoned on his forehead and a Hitler moustache. Thaksin is being compared to Hitler by his opponents in their speeches and published commentary amid warnings that the late German leader sinisterly used elections as a stepping-stone.
The campaign has raised concerns among Israeli diplomats that the campaigners underestimate World War Two and the Holocaust in which an estimated 6 million Jews as well as many others died. "You may like or dislike Mr. Thaksin’s performance and policies, but comparing him to Hitler shows ignorance or lack of knowledge of history," the Israeli Embassy wrote in an open letter to readers of the Bangkok Post, published on Thursday, March 23.
"It is also to ignore the actual fact that millions of people were murdered and suffered under the hands of the Nazi regime," Israel’s embassy said. The prime minister’s enemies include the middle class, academics, and opponents of Washington’s Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Bangkok, idealists, students and former cronies dumped by Thaksin.
It is unclear what impact the political tensions will have on Thailand’s tiny Jewish or Christian communities. Thailand was so far seen as a stable base in Asia for foreign missionaries active in the region, despite recent concern over potential terror attacks against churches and fighting with Muslim rebels in southern thailand in which 1,300 people died since 2004.
Thaksin is perceived as immensely popular among this Southeast Asian nation’s poor, thanks in part to his government’s low-interest small loans, hospital care for 30 baht (75 US cents), and other give-aways.
The prime minister points to 19 million voters who re-elected him in February 2005, and denounces the protests as a "smear campaign" by "mob rule".
Thaksin initially achieved power in a landslide victory in January 2001, and became Thailand’s first elected prime minister to complete a four-year term. Stung by tens of thousands of Thais who gather each day and night at his office, and in Bangkok’s main park, Thaksin called a snap election for April 2 to prove the majority support him.
His opponents, worried that he and his Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party will easily be re-elected, demand a poll boycott. Anti-Thaksin forces are led by former Major-General Chamlong Srimuang who through previous campaigns, made abortion virtually illegal in Thailand. He also portrayed himself as celibate despite being married.
Chamlong leads a puritanical, anti-alcohol "Dharma Army" of Buddhists, including children, officially cast out of Thailand’s majority Buddhist mainstream because their Santi Asoke sect opposes the established Buddhist clergy. He, along with a coup-installed military dictator, were jointly scolded on nationwide TV in 1992 by Thailand’s widely revered king, after Chamlong led a pro-democracy march in Bangkok to confront the military, which then shot dead over 50 civilians.
Protesters have also called for a boycott — widely ignored — of Singapore’s products, to convince the Singapore government to renege on the Thaksin deal, which allows it to profit from Thailand’s biggest mobile telephone company, plus a Bangkok TV station, and Thailand’s iPSTAR satellite. And demonstrators stay tuned for what promises to be a turbulent political period. (Award-winning reporter, photojournalist and author Richard S. Ehrlich with website http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent/news.html has covered Asia for 27 years for a variety of media, including as staff correspondent for United Press International from 1978 to 1984, based in Hong Kong and New Delhi. He also co-authored the non-fiction best seller "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" — Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. The book, reviewed by Time magazine and other leading publications, looks beyond the red light of Thailand’s nightlife, and gives a rare insight in the often tragic and difficult relationships between prostitutes and their clients. Ehrlich, who was born in the US and is currently based in Bangkok, received the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s Foreign Correspondent’s Award in 1978. He speaks some Mandarin, Hindustani, Urdu, Thai, Spanish and French. Ehrlich can be reached for assignments and/or more information via website http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent/news.html )