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Ex-Thai PM pleads not guilty

Deposed Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra pleaded not guilty Wednesday to corruption charges, in the first case brought against him by military-backed investigators to go before a court. (Report: J. Jackson)

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Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Tuesday it was time to bury the hatchet with his enemies and allow Thailand to move forward after nearly three years of political strife.


"Let bygones be bygones. We are moving ahead. Let's move the country forward," Thaksin told foreign correspondents a day before he was due to face corruption charges at the Supreme Court.


Thaksin, who has had nearly $2 billion of his family assets frozen, said he was innocent of the charges related to his wife's purchase at auction of a prime piece of land in Bangkok owned by the Bank of Thailand.


"We did nothing wrong," he said. "I will just go there and deny all the charges."


The billionaire, who returned from exile last month after he was ousted in a bloodless 2006 coup, and 46 top officials were also charged on Monday with illegal use of state lottery funds.


The Supreme Court said on Tuesday it would decide on May 14 whether to hear the case, which could force Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee and two junior ministers to step aside temporarily.


Thaksin said he was focused on clearing his name and insisted he would devote his remaining years to family, charities, teaching and running his English Premier League soccer club, Manchester City.


"I have done a lot for my country in six years as prime minister and that is enough. It's time for me to call it quits and give time to my family," said Thaksin, who turns 59 in July.


STILL DISBELIEF


But few Thais believe -- or want to believe -- Thaksin will stay out of the political fray for long after his supporters formed a coalition government following a December election that marked Thailand's return to democracy.


Already the People's Alliance for Democracy, which led street protests against Thaksin which culminated in the coup, has warned him not to use his political clout to exact revenge on opponents or sway graft cases against him and his wife.


Several top bureaucrats who worked with the interim post-coup government have already lost their jobs, including the national police chief, the head of the Food and Drug Administration and a senior investigator probing graft charges against Thaksin.


Thaksin said it was normal for new governments to replace officials from an outgoing administration.


With all eyes now on a military reshuffle expected in April, analysts say a broader purge could revive open political conflict with Thaksin's opponents in the military and royalist establishment.


Thaksin tried to play down those fears, saying tensions had eased since he declared his political career over.


"If I was still in politics, maybe. But that's another reason that I better quit politics. It's probably better," he said.


However, private citizen Thaksin, from whom Finance Minister Surapong has said he will seek advice on running the economy, is not shy about his opinions on how to revive one of the slowest growing economies in the region. "As an observer, I would suggest that interest rates must come down," he said.


He planned to travel to England on Thursday, his first court-approved foreign trip since he returned last month, in a bid to halt his team's slide down the Premier League table.


Thaksin, who bought Manchester City while living in exile in London, said more money would be made available to strengthen the squad and build the team's international profile.


"I feel like they are losing too many games in the last three to four months while I am still busy. So I have to go back and tighten the bolt," he said.

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