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CNN Thaksin interview sparks row

By CNN's Dan Rivers
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BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN ) -- A diplomatic row has erupted between Thailand's military junta and the government of nearby Singapore after CNN's exclusive interview with ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thailand's army rulers issued a statement expressing dissatisfaction that Thaksin had been allowed to meet the Singaporean deputy prime minister.

The meeting was thrust into the limelight when Thaksin broke his four-month public silence by appearing on CNN from Singapore to say "Enough is enough," promising to quit politics for good and expressing the desire to return from exile abroad to private life in Thailand.

Soon afterward, the foreign ministry in Bangkok announced that it was rescinding an invitation to Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo, scheduled for the end of January, and was freezing a civil-service exchange program with Singapore.

CNN's transmission of the interview with Thaksin was blocked by satellite company UBC throughout Thailand after the military ordered the country's news media to refrain from carrying any messages or images of him.

During the 30-minute interview, to be broadcast in full this weekend on CNNI's "Talk Asia," Thaksin denied a government claim that he was involved in a series of New Year's Eve bombings in Bangkok in which three people were killed.

He described the allegation as "baseless," adding that he had "no involvement at all" in the attacks and expressing "deepest sympathy for those who lost their loved ones and also all those injured."

Asked if he will return to politics in Thailand, the 57-year-old former leader said, "No. No, enough is enough. Six years you serve the countries. You've been working hard. You sacrifice your time, even your life. And even your family life. So it's, it's time for me to go back as a private citizen. And contribute to the Thai society outside political arena."

The message of reconciliation made front-page news in several of Thailand's newspapers, but local TV stations did not broadcast any portions of the interview.

Giles Ungakaporn, a professor of politics at Bangkok University and anti-coup activist, said the media had been threatened.

Army leaders met last week with Thai media chiefs and asked them not to report what Thaksin was saying. Though possible consequences for disobeying were not spelled out, several media commentators and columnists have said the army leaders implied that doing so could result in sanctions or intervention.

One Thai journalist who asked not to be identified told CNN that members of the Thai television news media were practicing "self-censorship," a decision she described as "not right," but unavoidable.

Martial law remains in place throughout Thailand, despite the army's promise made last October to lift it by the end of 2006. A resolution to do so still has not been approved by the country's constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Life in Thailand has continued largely as normal since Sept. 19, when tanks rolled onto the streets and, claiming Thaksin was involved in corrupt practices, ousted the democratically elected leader.

Since then, the coup leaders -- who call themselves the Council for National Security -- have failed to present persuasive evidence that would prove their allegations that Thaksin is corrupt.

During its four months in power, the CNS has been accused of committing a series of blunders.

For example, its tax on some portfolio investments caused the stock market to plummet 15 percent in one day, a loss of $23 billion. A policy U-turn the next day exempting equities from the law helped trigger a recovery, but left many economists wondering if the army's leaders were competent to run one of Asia's booming economies.

Other announcements restricting foreign companies operating in Thailand have also unsettled investors.

Together with the clamp-down on the news media and continuing martial law, the reputation of Thailand has become tarnished in the eyes of some in the international community, with the Japan External Trade Organization saying several Japanese firms are considering putting off plans to invest there.

Many are left wondering whether 2007 will be even more tumultuous than were the last 12 months and, crucially, whether Thailand and its 62 million inhabitants are descending toward autocracy and economic decline.

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