Thailand denies Tony Blair $810k speaker fee

BANGKOK - Thailand has denied it will pay former British Prime Minister Tony Blair US$640,000 (S$810,000) to speak at an upcoming government-sponsored forum in Bangkok on bridging the kingdom's festering political divides.

A lawmaker from Thailand's opposition Democrat party last week alleged 20 million baht (US$640,000) had been put aside in the budget to pay controversial ex-premier Blair, a claim refuted by the government.

Several dignitaries will take part in the one-day 'unity forum' a foreign ministry spokesman told AFP on Saturday, adding none "will receive any extra pay".

Thailand will only "offer them air tickets, accommodation and transportation while they are here," spokesman Manasavi Srisodapol added.

Nobel Peace Prize-winning Finnish ex-president, Martti Ahtisaari, and Priscilla Hayner - an expert in truth and reconciliation commissions - will be among the guests, he said.

The one-day September 2 forum is being convened to find a way through the political turmoil which has gripped the kingdom since a 2006 military coup toppled Thailand's divisive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The kingdom has been beset by bitter political divisions since, heightened by a 2010 crackdown on Thaksin supporting 'Red Shirt' protesters in Bangkok which left 90 people dead and around 1,900 injured.

The current government, led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, faced street protests on August 7 against an amnesty bill it has backed in parliament lifting responsibility for the political violence from everyone but its leaders.

A spokesman for Tony Blair, who as premier was heavily criticised for backing the invasion of Iraq but praised for his role in a peace process in Northern Ireland, said he was "delighted" to accept the government invite to Thailand.

"This is being done on an entirely pro bono basis - there is no fee and there never was," he added.

It is understood that Blair, now an international Middle East peace envoy and also one of the world's best paid public speakers, will have only his travel and accommodation costs paid for.