Why Thailand's Generals Will Root for Manchester United

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Jon Super / AP

The guy selling spears of chilled guava down the street sports a Chelsea football jersey. Everywhere in soccer-mad Bangkok, in fact, people wear garments proclaiming their affiliation with one or another English Premier League team. But one jersey you're unlikely to spot? That of Manchester City. It's not because City has struggled, unsuccessfully, for three decades now to emerge from the shadow of its more moneyed crosstown rival, Manchester United. Even Birmingham's lackluster Aston Villa, after all, maintains a dogged fan base in Thailand's capital. No, the reason Manchester City is taboo in Bangkok is because its new owner is ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Deposed in a bloodless coup last September, Thaksin has acquired quite the post-power diversion. Last month, he bought Manchester City Football Club for $162 million — mere pocket change compared with the roughly $2 billion in funds Thai authorities have frozen from his family bank accounts. The military junta now controlling Thailand condemned his acquisition of the team — Thai courts have slapped Thaksin, who made his fortune in the telecom business, with corruption and abuse-of-power charges stemming from his time in office. On Tuesday the Thai supreme court issued a warrant for Thaksin's arrest for failing to show up in court to face the graft charges. International human-rights monitors such as New York City-based Human Rights Watch have also chimed in, accusing Thaksin of presiding over a range of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, during his tenure as PM. Through his lawyer, Thaksin denied the human-rights group's charges.

But the tycoon hasn't allowed negative publicity to curb his enthusiasm for his new role as proud owner of a well established team in a league watched by a worldwide TV audience of 570 million. Thaksin has signaled his ambitions by hiring former England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson to run the team, handing the Swede a war chest of almost $80 million to acquire players from clubs worldwide who can help City improve on last season's 14th place in the 20-team league.

Thaksin, who owns a home in London, is also working hard to turn on the charm in his country of exile. On Aug. 4, Thailand's longest-serving elected Prime Minister (O.K., it was only five years) threw a street party in Manchester that drew thousands of revelers. City fans were treated to Thai delicacies such as red curry and stir-fried rice noodles, while karaoke-loving Thaksin lent his voice to a rousing rendition of the team's anthem, Blue Moon.

Thai media outlets, which have generally supported the country's military leaders, sniffed disapproval at Thaksin's populist tactics. "THAKSIN'S SUBTLE POLITICAL WAR FROM ABROAD", ran one headline in the Nation newspaper. But Thailand's ruling generals could use a little positive spin themselves. Although the junta has promised to hold elections by the end of this year, the draft constitution up for referendum this weekend rolls back certain democratic reforms introduced in the previous charter. And despite promises that the military would withdraw from politics, a junta aide has hinted that coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin might throw his hat in the ring in the upcoming polls.

The next step on the path back to democracy is the Aug. 19 vote on the draft constitution. Hoping to encourage people to cast their ballots on Sunday, the junta has designated the following Monday a national holiday. But the generals didn't foresee a rather unfortunate scheduling conflict: Aug. 19 happens to be the very day when Thaksin's team hosts its crosstown foe, Manchester United — a match that will be available on cable in Thailand. Thai soccer fans won't want to miss the game, especially given how popular United is in Southeast Asia. No points for guessing which team Bangkok's military brass will be supporting.