Thai ex-premier Thaksin uses Rhine refuge (News Feature)
By Jean-Baptiste Piggin Jun 5, 2009, 12:00 GMT
Berlin - Thaksin Shinawatra, former Thai prime minister, must have known: For a washed-up leader with practically unlimited money in the kitty, there is no refuge quite like Bonn on the Rhine.
Palatial riverside homes behind high walls offer privacy. One can flit away across open borders to nine other nations by car. Bonn people are used to spies and diplomats who resent nosy questions.
With deft understatement, thriller writer John Le Carre once called the former German capital 'A Small Town in Germany,' where Cold War warriors conspired behind bland faces and tidy streets.
When Thaksin turned up last December 29 at the city immigration office to ask for a one-year residency permit, the desk clerk must have thought it was a job where it was best to ask no questions, according to an account in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
Unlike the refugees and foreign students who queue for hours, this foreigner arrived trailing an escort of big-wigs. One was a renowned German lawyer. A second was Gerd Steffen, the retired commander of the city of Bonn police criminal-investigation department.
The fourth man seated on Thaksin's side of the desk gave his name as Richard Nelson.
The clerk thought he heard Nelson say that he was connected to the German foreign-intelligence agency, the BND.
During a subsequent investigation in Bonn, which led to the residency permit being cancelled on May 28, angry German diplomats accused the BND of engineering the visa and wondered if the BND had somehow conspired with one of Asia's most wanted men.
As it turned out, the BND had never been involved.
Things were not as they seemed in Bonn, where an Asian face does not stand out in a crowd and it is possible to hide in full public view.
A Thai court last year sentenced Thaksin in absentia to two years in prison for abuse of power, for allowing his wife to bid on a plot of Bangkok land at a government auction when he was premier in 2003.
The ex-policeman, who built up Shin Corp. to become one of Thailand's biggest companies, and ran Thailand from 2001 to 2006, has since moved around the world, always one step ahead of Thai arrest warrants.
His whereabouts have been a mystery for much of the past year. He showed up in Beijing at the opening of the Olympic Games last year, then moved to London for several months until his visa was revoked.
According to the Sueddeutsche, he was then on the move with a 90-day European Union visa issued in France. The news media claimed sightings in Hong Kong, Bali, the United Arab Emirates, Montenegro and even Africa. But in fact he was in Bonn.
The BND initially suspected the shadowy fourth man was a foreign intelligence operative, but finally recognized 'Nelson' as one of the stock names used by a private detective, Werner Mauss, 69, who does not work at the BND, the newspaper said.
Over the years, Mauss has repeatedly figured in the news in Germany as a steel-nerved, freelance troubleshooter with remarkable access to the Bonn police and government departments.
Thaksin could doubtless afford any fees charged by Mauss and a well-connected German lawyer.
The immigration clerk also asked if Thaksin, 59, had sufficient income, to ensure he would not require German social-welfare support. Obviously. Did he have health insurance? Of course.
With his escorts translating, the billionaire stated that he was living in Bonn's most elegant suburb, Bad Godesberg, where the leafy streets are lined with park-like gardens and fine old mansions with terraces overlooking the lovely Rhine.
A quick look in Germany's national database of aliens showed no past offences or breaches of visa by the ex-premier. The permit was issued.
The newspaper suggested Thaksin must have originally entered Germany on a 90-day visa arranged by a retired German conservative politician who told immigration staff Thaksin would be informing some interested listeners about the ins and outs of Thai politics.
How long Thaksin enjoyed this pleasant refuge is unclear.
His date of departure was not reported, but the Sueddeutsche said Thaksin had now obtained a diplomatic passport from Nicaragua which identified him as an ambassador with special duties for the Central American nation.
Once discovered, the sojourn triggered major recriminations all the way up to the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Rather than arrest and extradite a visiting politician, or else cause offence to his successors by refusing to do so, most self-respecting western nations just shut the gate. No incoming visitor. No controversy.
Merkel's office and the Foreign Ministry pressured the state of North Rhine Westphalia, where Bonn is located, to reverse the blunder and revoke the residency permit as quickly as possible, the Sueddeutsche said.
In Bangkok, the Foreign Ministry said it had not heard of the Bonn sojourn.
'It's very difficult for us to keep up with his visas, let alone his passports,' Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Thani Thongphakdi said.
Once again, the news media is scanning the globe for fresh signs of Thaksin, who continues to be revered by Thailand's populist red-shirt movement and to be hunted by the current Thai government.