Man City deal puts Thaksin back on centre spot

BANGKOK Fri Jun 22, 2007 8:14am BST

Ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra smiles at a news conference at Takushoku University in Tokyo June 7, 2007. Shinawatra plans to sue the military government for the return of the $1.8 billion (900 million pounds) of assets frozen by anti-graft investigators, the Financial Times said on Friday. REUTERS/Toshiyuki Aizawa

Ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra smiles at a news conference at Takushoku University in Tokyo June 7, 2007. Shinawatra plans to sue the military government for the return of the $1.8 billion (900 million pounds) of assets frozen by anti-graft investigators, the Financial Times said on Friday.

Credit: Reuters/Toshiyuki Aizawa

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Whatever his motives in buying the Manchester City soccer club, deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has scored back home, kicking the army's allegations of corruption against him off Friday's front pages.

"Maewchester City!" the English-language Nation newspaper screamed in a banner headline playing on the exiled Thaksin's nickname.

Thai-language papers, which have rounded on Thaksin since his removal in a September military coup, carried front-page photos of his lawyer holding up a light-blue Manchester City shirt.

By contrast, the lodging of formal corruption charges against Thaksin and his wife -- only hours before the English Premier League club's board gave his bid the green light -- was relegated to minor inserts or the inside pages.

In statements accompanying the deal, Thaksin insisted he merely wanted to "take the club back to its rightful place at the highest level of competition" and dismissed speculation the deal was a ploy to curry favour with a soccer-mad Thai public.

"I've already declared that I have retired from politics," he told Sky Sports. "I can assure you I'm not going to bring football to politics or bring politics to football."

But few in Thailand believe him.

"One certain thing is that from a public relations point of view, having a football club is probably better than having an election rally," Bangkok-based business consultant Christopher Bruton said.

"People watch football, there's a lot of interest in football, and one very good way to get yourself on the TV screens is to be the proud owner of a football club."

COMEBACK CONFUSION

Special Justice Ministry graft investigators have ordered Thaksin to return next week to hear charges in person that he breached political disclosure rules by concealing his ownership of shares.

However, army chief and coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin has thrown his return into question, suggesting his life might be in danger.

For now at least, the former telecommunications tycoon does not appear keen to board a plane for Bangkok, saying he did not seek "confrontation between the people who are crying for democracy and the military".

Thaksin's Bangkok-based lawyer said he would sue the army-backed administration next week to unfreeze $1.8 billion of Thaksin's assets in domestic bank accounts, but said this had nothing to do with finding the cash to pay for the City deal.

"It is not clear where the money will come from but he definitely has the money, otherwise they would not have agreed to sell," lawyer Noppadon Pattama told Reuters.

At face value, the coup stemmed from middle-class street protests in 2006 against Thaksin's autocratic style and huge personal wealth, which his opponents say he wielded unfairly to secure unassailable support from the rural masses.

But analysts say it was as much about a royalist military and business elite removing a nouveau riche, ethnic Chinese businessman who had encroached too far on their traditional turf.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat)

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