Saturday, May 05, 2007

Fishing in the spotlight

His bid for English Premier League club Manchester City and election as Professional Golf Association of Thailand president ensure Thaksin remains on centrestage.


IN a wooden boat, a man with a square face is fishing using a worm covered with a Manchester City football club emblem as bait. Surrounding the worm, which is wearing a football boot, is a school of salivating fish wearing press tags and equipped with tape recorders, pens and a cameras.

“C’mon! Talk about me! Talk about me! Me! Me! Me!!!” the fisherman, who resembles former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, yells at the fish, which are individually marked Thai Rath, Matichon, Daily News, The Nation and Bangkok Post – the names of Thailand's leading newspapers.

That’s The Nation’s editorial cartoonist Stephff’s take on the report of Thaksin’s £100mil (RM680mil) bid for English football club Manchester City.

Whether Stephff, a French cartoonist whose real name is Stephane Peray, is correct in his interpretation of the billionaire businessman’s motive, he is as spot on as a Liverpool football club penalty taker that the bid has hooked the Thai media.

On Wednesday, The Nation’s front-page headline screamed: “Thaksin ‘in box seat’ for football club.” It reported that the former Prime Minister, who was deposed last September in a coup, had emerged as the frontrunner in the takeover bid after being given Manchester City’s accounts on Monday.

That Wednesday night, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand clubhouse in Bangkok, among the topics of discussion was Thaksin’s foray into sports.

“Do you think that Thaksin’s bid for Manchester City is similar to his bid for Liverpool?” I asked a historian who had told me that Thaksin’s failed effort three years ago to buy Liverpool for £65mil (RM442mil) was to divert attention from his political woes.

The historian nodded, indicating that the Maine Road bid was a publicity stunt to put Thaksin back in the Thai centre spot. And he whispered: “I don’t know whether he has the money for it.”
“Why not?” I asked, as financial magazine Forbes has estimated Thaksin's worth at US$2.2bil (RM7.5bil).

“I believe most of his money is at home (in Thailand),” he responded, referring to the request by Thaksin's wife to the Thai government to take 400 million baht (RM41mil) abroad to finance the purchase of a property in England.

The other sport the billionaire is using as bait to get the media’s attention is golf. On Monday, Thaksin, who is living in exile in London, was elected president of the Professional Golf Association of Thailand (PGAT).

“Golf is the sport of executives who are now not happy with the way this government is running the country; while most Thais are crazy about English soccer,” advertising expert and political campaigner Seri Wongmonta said.

“By running both sports, he will have both local and international media exposure,” he said. “Thaksin is doing everything he can to take up media space to ensure the spotlight stays on him.”

Popular Campaign for Democracy secretary-general Suriyasai Katasila notes that “politicians and golf courses can’t be divided”.

“When Thaksin was PM, he made decisions about many projects on the golf course,” he said. “Golf or football, it's all linked to a network of politically influential groups.”

General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, the army chief who spear-headed the coup against Thaksin, is not amused with the former Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party leader’s election as PGAT president.

“It’s ridiculous. I think Thais are in a confused condition. Some may not be able to separate what is good from what is bad. Perhaps we should ask a psychiatrist to help them,” Gen Sonthi said.

The general added that the appointment must have a hidden agenda and might be a fighting call to gain popularity.

Jatuporn Prompan, a former TRT deputy spokesman, replied Thaksin became the association’s president through an election, not by seizing power, in an obvious dig at Gen Sonthi.

Noppadon Pattama, Thaksin’s legal adviser, insists the billionaire has hung up his “politics boots” and is now concentrating on sports and social matters.

Tonight, as Thais watch the Manchester City versus Manchester United English Premiership derby live on television, they can ponder what game Thaksin is playing.

(Published in The Star on May 5, 2007)