By AMBIKA AHUJA/ AP WRITER
BANGKOK — Thailand’s prime minister lifted a state of emergency on Friday that was imposed in the capital following anti-government riots by supporters of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, while authorities tried to locate the fugitive tycoon abroad.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva made the announcement at the end of a two-day special parliamentary session aimed at finding a solution to the country’s political crisis.
“Lifting the state of emergency is one of the measures to find a solution for the country,” Abhisit told the parliamentary session. Many opposition lawmakers had urged the prime minister to remove the emergency decree which they said inflamed the still-tense situation in Thailand.
“The government wants reconciliation and to move the country forward,” Abhisit told lawmakers early Friday. The debate ran for two marathon 15-hour sessions dominated by partisan bickering over who was to blame for the violence, but did little to resolve Thailand’s deepening political divide.
The protests were part of Thailand’s long-running political turmoil, which revolves around Thaksin’s ouster in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, fled the country last year ahead of a corruption conviction.
Thaksin’s supporters, who are known as the “red shirts,” rioted in Bangkok last week, calling for Abhisit’s resignation and new elections. Two people were killed and 123 injured as protesters clashed with troops and residents.
Thaksin, who still enjoys wide support among Thailand's rural poor because of his populist policies while in office, addressed demonstrators from exile via video link during the run-up to the riots, and at one point called for a “revolution.”
He changed his message after the rioting and joined political rivals in calling for reconciliation.
The state of emergency was imposed April 12 amid rioting in Bangkok. The decree had banned gatherings of more than five people and news reports that threatened public order and allowed the government to call up military troops to quell unrest.
Thaksin’s whereabouts continue to dominate headlines in Thailand and taunt the government, who holds him responsible for the recent violence and is trying to extradite him.
Up until last week, Thaksin was in Dubai but now appears to be in Africa.
Thaksin traveled to Liberia earlier this week to inquire about investing in diamonds, officials said, continuing his global wanderings in pursuit of business ventures. Liberia, known as a tax haven, is keen to lure foreign investors as it tries to move beyond its dark history of a civil war that was funded and fueled by so-called “blood diamonds.”
Liberia’s Information Minister Cletus Sieh told The Associated Press that Thaksin had been in Liberia earlier this week and met with the country’s vice president and other officials.
“He's trying to invest in Africa and he came to Liberia to explore the possibility of investing in the gold and diamond sector,” Sieh said, adding that Thaksin had arrived in Liberia on Tuesday and left the next day.
Sieh said he believed that Thaksin went on to Ghana and Ivory Coast. His current location could not be immediately confirmed.
Thaksin’s most recent hub was Dubai. He earlier used London as a base until Britain revoked his visa because of the Thai conviction. While in Britain, Thaksin bought the English Premier League soccer team Manchester City, which he subsequently sold to Abu Dhabi investors.
Thaksin recently has claimed that he’s running out of money, but says that Thailand’s move to freeze his assets may have helped safeguard his vast wealth from the financial crisis.
Thaksin’s fortune was estimated at US $2.2 billion in 2006 by Forbes Asia magazine. By 2008, his net worth was pegged at $400 million after Thailand froze more than $1.8 billion of his family’s assets pending the outcome of corruption cases against him.
It is unclear which passport Thaksin is using to travel. The government has revoked Thaksin’s personal and diplomatic passports, but the former Thai prime minister now has a diplomatic Nicaraguan passport and is alleged to have others.
The red shirts, mostly from the rural poor who benefited from Thaksin’s social welfare programs, claim Abhisit, who was appointed by Parliament in December, came to power illegitimately after court rulings removed two Thaksin-allied governments.
Their protests came after three years of sporadic protests by Thaksin’s opponents, the “yellow shirts,” whose rallies paved the way to the 2006 coup and the later court dismissals of Thaksin’s allies. The yellow shirts come mainly from the urban, middle class and educated elite of Thai society, including royalists.