Thursday, August 02, 2007

Fit and Proper Person

Much ado about the latest addition to the Premier League's increasingly cosmopolitan ownership group (which, at last count, includes 3 Americans, 2 Russians, an Icelander, a Thai and whatever the hell Mohammed el-Fayed is these days.), former telecoms tycoon and PM of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra who bought Man City last month.

In a nutshell, the rap sheet against Shinawatra consists of three counts:

1) the money he used to buy City was illegally obtained;
2) he was a human rights nightmare as Prime Minister of Thailand and therefore should not be considered a "fit and proper person" (a test the league has to screen prospective owners to make sure fraudsters do not take over a club, as happened for instance at Exeter City), and;
3) his government was known as being corrupt and riven with conflict-of-interest allegations

Here's the real scoop:

Thaksin's money is almost certainly legit. He made his money before he entered politics. There are some stories out right now containing a lot of hand-wringing about the fact that he paid no tax on the sale of certain telecom assets - which is true, but entirely legit under existing Thai law.

With respect to human rights, it is certainly true that his government led two brutal crackdowns - one on crystal meth distributors and one on Muslim autonomists and separatists in the country's southern region. Human Rights Watch have compiled documentary evidence on these abuses (available here) and at least with respect to the war on drugs, there is compelling evidence that at the very least he sanctioned (but did not necessarily order) extreme extra-judicial measures. Crucially, though, he has not been indicted for this in Thailand itself, despite having been removed from power in a coup eleven months ago.

Finally, there is the issue of conflicts of interest in his government. No question here: the Economist in particular was merciless throughout his tenure as Prime Minister in its condemnation of his inability to distinguish between public and private interests. But in this, it should be said, he was not much different than Silvio Berlusconi, who owns Milan and is not thought to pose a major danger to European football as a result.

Thaksin, it should be emphasized, is in effect a political refugee. He was removed in a bizarre military coup effecively supported by middle-class liberals who resented Thakson's populism and promotion of policies to benefit the rural poor. I was in Thailand just before the cancelled April 2006 elections and it was very discomfiting to continually have to listen to educated, self-proclaimed liberal democrats talk about how mass protests to cancel elections were justified because an election would be "unfair" when clearly what they really meant was that they wanted elections to be cancelled because their side was going to get its ass kicked.

Thaksin's (mostly legal) asserts have been frozen by the military he cannot return to his country because of arguably trumped-up corruption charges. His purchase of Man City is seen as dangerous in Thailand because it is a way for him to remain prominent and "in the news" back home without actively engaging in politics - and the military seems to be trying to find a way to drum up new charges against Thaksin simply because they didn't know about the assets he used to buy the club.

(If you're wondering how ownership of Man City translates into visibility in Thailand, you need to experience the sheer ubiquity of Premiership football in Southeast Asia, where it is quite common on a Saturday evening to be able to watch four live Premiership matches simultaneously).

Was all his money fairly earned? Maybe not, but as far as ethical cash goes, Abramovich probably has a lot more to answer for. Corruption? Yes, probably, but again, no worse than Berlusconi. The Human Rights issue is more problematic, but the charges are against the Thai government he led rather than against him personally. Would Human Rights Watch - who have asked the Premier League to bar Thaksin from ownership on the grounds that a fit and proper persons test should include a look at human rights records - write a similar letter to Major League Baseball about Camp X-Ray and Abu Ghraib if Bush returned to the Texas Rangers? I somehow doubt it.

Without denying for a moment that Thaksin is a problematic character, the degree of opprobrium being attracted by his purchase of Man City is a bit troubling. Most self-made entrepreneurs are welcome in the UK and the Premiership - and one would not automatically assume that democratically elected leaders currently in exile because of a military coup would be unwelcome in football.

Might the reason actually be - say it softly now - because he's Asian?

An alternate theory: Human Rights Watch did not dispatch its letter until Thaksin had already hired Sven Goran Eriksson as manager. Is it possible that it was the effect of having to watch more tortuous football (and listen to more tortuous press interviews) from the Swede that prompted HRW's letter?

Just asking.

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