Life on the run: 'It's so hard to get a decent haircut'
London may seem like the perfect playground for a billionaire with time on his hands. But Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand who fled here pursued by allegations of corruption, has found an exile's lot is not always a happy one, according to a new book
The life of an exile is never easy. The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was banished in 58BC and it caused him to fall into a deep depression; Napoleon died on St Helena, never to see his native France again; while the Egyptian politician Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi so hated his exile to what is now Sri Lanka that he wrote a series of poems full of lament and misery.
But all of these hardships are nothing, surely, compared with the tribulation confronting the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand and a man whose life in London has been made miserable by that most pernicious of urban challenges - finding a decent barber.
The man who was ousted from power by a military coup last year and who bought Manchester City in an apparent bid to find solace, discovered to his dismay that getting his hair cut in a way that he liked was as difficult a challenge as staying in power.
Such was the struggle for a decent trim that when he travelled to either Singapore or Hong Kong, he flew in his own stylist from Bangkok. "The hairdressers in London cut it either too short or too funky," Mr Thaksin confided. "Sometimes he made me look like a teenager."
This insight about the remarkable and wasteful habit of Mr Thaksin as he sought grooming perfection in London is just one in a series of revelations that appear in a controversial new book about the former communications tycoon, which has set Thailand chattering about its ousted leader.
Among the revelations about the Man City boss's life in the nation's capital is that he occupies his time shopping for handbags for his wife and two daughters and singing karaoke with a Thai pop singer called Lydia, who sometimes accompanies him on his shopping trips. "She is like another daughter to him," Mr Thaksin's son said.
And while one might think a man of Mr Thaksin's means can find plenty of the good life in London, he also likes to hop to France for "real wine and homemade food". And when he's not sipping wine, shopping for handbags or singing Thai pop songs with Lydia, he takes a plane to a golf club in Miami in order to finesse his swing. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the number of social engagements and shopping trips he has to co-ordinate, Mr Thaksin told the book's author that he owns eight mobile phones and 20 SIM cards.
The book, entitled Thaksin, Where Are You, was written by Sunisa Lertpakawat, a lieutenant in the Thai armed forces who claimed she travelled to London this summer at her own expense on a mission to find Mr Thaksin and persuade him to grant her an interview. According to Ms Lertpakawat, she pulled it off and secured seven hours-worth of exclusive interviews with the notoriously reclusive man by a combination of weeping and pleading. Eventually, as she tells it, Mr Thaksin gave in.
But in Thailand, not everyone is persuaded by this charming little narrative and its tale of enterprise and ingenuity. Many people - including members of the military who overthrew Mr Thaksin last year - believe the former prime minister is behind the book and that it is nothing less than a sophisticated PR project that has been carried out to boost his image, just as he faces fresh legal difficulties in Thailand, where a court has issued a warrant for his arrest. One anonymous government official bluntly told a Thai newspaper: "You-know-who is the hand behind this publication."
Last night, Ms Lertpakawat denied the book was anything other than what it claimed to be and insisted that Mr Thaksin - while agreeing to be interviewed - was not the instigator of the idea. Speaking from Bangkok, she said: "I refute that. He did not know I would be there - it was just my own work. This is my job... I am a Catholic, I think God is responsible for everything. When I was in London I prayed to God, I prayed that he put Thaksin in front of me."
Ms Lertpakawat said that she took time off from her job as a television reporter and anchor with the Thai army's media unit and flew to London in May. Once there, she spent days staking out Mr Thaksin at the apartment close to Hyde Park in which he lives. She said that she approached him several times and that he refused to speak with her. Having spent all her money on the flight to London and her expenses, she said she then explained the severity of her situation to her fellow countryman. "I told him that if he did not agree to the interview then I would lose my savings account," she said. "It would be zero. He was not in the mood to give an interview... After I told him I would lose my money he agreed."
And what a diverting, insightful interview Mr Thaksin provided. Carried out over two days, the former prime minister painted a colourful picture of himself that could barely have been more guaranteed to grab the headlines than if it had been specially produced by his PR agency.
Rounding off the image, Mr Thaksin's son, Panthongtae, met separately with Ms Lertpakawat at a Thai restaurant and provided her with a series of family photographs and permission to use them in her book. There are pictures of Mr Thaksin working on that famous golf swing, Mr Thaksin shopping in a supermarket, Mr Thaksin on a bicycle, Mr Thaksin buying a pizza, Mr Thaksin feeding his son and Mr Thaksin looking at fish in an aquarium. All in all it is quite a family album.
The revelations about the man who paid almost £82m to buy Man City come as he faces growing difficulties in Thailand, where demonstrations last year - apparently linked to allegations of corruption - preceded the coup that saw him forced from power. This week, a Thai judge issued an arrest warrant for the former prime minister and his wife, Pojamarn, claiming that their failure to attend the court hearing to face corruption charges gave "reason to believe that they are evading prosecution".
Mr Thaksin and his wife are charged with several offences relating to a 2003 land deal, in which his wife is alleged to have bought the land from the Financial Institutions Development Fund, which is directed by the central bank. If convicted, the pair face up to three years in jail.
The former prime minister's lawyer, Pichit Chuenban, told reporters after the hearing that Mr Thaksin would return to Thailand to face the charges, but only after elections scheduled for later this year had gone ahead. In a statement, Mr Thaksin said he was aware of the court's decision and was consulting with his legal team about the best way to proceed.
According to Ms Lertpakawat, the charges that have been brought against Mr Thaksin and his family have had a deep impact on the ousted leader. She said that when he talked about seeing his family placed before the court, it was all he could do not to burst out crying. "He almost cried before me. He could not hide the emotion. It was very dramatic. He is a famous guy," she said.
While Ms Lertpakawat herself was weeping on Thai television last night over the army's decision to discipline her for a breach of regulations, she appears remarkably upbeat about her fortunes. Though the printing of her book was halted after just 4,000 copies were completed, she said she was now setting up a publishing house and was planning to write another book about her own story.
And Mr Thaksin also appears to have found a solution to his difficulties - at least those of finding a suitable barber. In her book, Ms Lertpakawat writes that Mr Thaksin stopped having to fly in his stylist after finding a "Spanish hairdresser at a Toni & Guy in London who manages to get his haircuts just right".
The Independent was able to confirm that the man who provides such sparkling cuts is 27-year-old Jorge De Sancho, who works at the chain's Mayfair branch. Mr De Sancho was not at the salon yesterday, but a receptionist said of Mr Thaksin: "He takes his time and likes to chat to Jorge. He's very friendly and doesn't come across as self-important at all."
Additional reporting by Amol Rajan