Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra returns to a politically divided Thailand after 15 years of self-exile

By Helen Regan, Jessie Yeung and Kocha Olarn, CNN

CNN  —  Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted fugitive former prime minister of Thailand, returned to the country Tuesday for the first time after more than 15 years in self-exile, reintroducing a towering and divisive figure at a time when the kingdom’s often fraught political scene is in a fresh state of flux.

Thaksin, the head of a famed political dynasty and a former owner of Manchester City Football Club, was prime minister from 2001 until he was ousted in a military coup in 2006 while in New York attending a UN meeting.

He returned to Thailand briefly before fleeing the country in 2008 over a corruption conviction and upon his arrival Tuesday the Supreme Court sentenced him to eight years in prison. However, analysts say it is unclear whether he will serve that time.

Thaksin’s return after so many years coincides with an expected parliamentary vote for a new prime minister, with lawmakers hoping to break a political deadlock more than three months after elections were won by a popular progressive party that has been stymied by the kingdom’s political elites.

For weeks, Thaksin, 74, has hinted at his homecoming but the first real sign came Tuesday morning when videos showed his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who also lives in self-exile, hugging her brother before he boarded a plane in Singapore.

Thousands of people tracked his flight as Thaksin’s private jet landed at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport at 9 a.m. local time. He exited the airport’s private jet terminal some 90 minutes later alongside his children and greeted a crowd of supporters before bowing to a portrait of Thailand’s king.

Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn later posted a photo of her father meeting his infant granddaughter for the first time. The former prime minister then left on a police truck, headed to the Supreme Court.

Divided nation

With his populist policies that appealed to Thailand’s rural and working class, Thaksin created a political juggernaut that has dominated Thai politics in some form for the past 20 years.

The Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party, which came second in the May election, will nominate its choice for the country’s next leader Tuesday: real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin.

In a stunning about-face, Pheu Thai on Monday struck a deal with its former military rivals in a bid to secure enough parliamentary votes to form a government.

Though its election campaign included keeping the military out of power, its 11-party alliance includes military-backed parties Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation Party.

Both those parties are affiliated with coup leader and outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, and linked to the military junta that toppled a democratically elected government headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while flanked by his son Panthongtae Shinawatra and daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand on August 22.

The move also subverts the will of millions of Thais who voted overwhelmingly for progressive parties in the May election, delivering a powerful rebuke to the country’s military-backed establishment that has ruled Thailand since the coup.

Pheu Thai Party leader Cholnan Srikaew said in a statement Monday that the coalition would not include Move Forward Party, which won the most votes in the election.

Move Forward won on a platform of radical change and had pledged to introduce royal reform – a taboo topic in Thailand, where any frank discussion of the monarchy is fraught with the threat of prison because of strict lese majeste laws, known as Article 112.

With Move Forward now in the opposition, the alliance is likely to add fuel to the fire of the progressive movement’s young support base with the potential for mass street protests.

A survey by the National Institute of Development Administration found about 64% of 1,310 respondents disagreed or totally disagreed with the idea of the Pheu Thai party forming a “special government” with military-backed rivals, according to Reuters.

Who is Thaksin Shinawatra?

It is into the febrile political atmosphere that Thaksin’s return now adds a further layer of the unknown.

A telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin rose to power after a landslide election win in 2001. He grew hugely popular with the rural poor thanks to his offers of affordable medical care, debt relief and his anti-establishment stance – and eventually businesses warmed to him too, largely due to his trademark “Thaksinomics” that ushered in an era of economic success.

The policies, which included loans and debt moratoriums for farmers as well as subsidized fuel prices and greater access to healthcare and education were aimed at rural Thais, who make up the majority of the country’s population – but they were anathema to the country’s rich elites and conservatives who accused Thaksin of being a dangerous and corrupt populist.

Thailand’s military has a long track record of seizing power with more than a dozen successful coups since 1932.

In 2006, Thaksin was ousted and, facing a potential prison sentence over corruption charges, went into self-imposed exile.

Thaksin Shinawatra pictured inside a plane at an unknown location in this still image released on August 22.

“He became a threat because his popularity was competing against the establishment,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Despite Thaksin’s physical absence, he has retained an outsized influence on Thai politics. Until this year, political parties allied to Thaksin had won the most seats in every election since 2001, but have struggled to hold on to power due to the military exerting its influence, whether through coups or other means.

For instance, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck became the country’s first female prime minister in 2011 – but she was dismissed from office in 2014 after the Constitutional Court ruled she had abused her position.

Former army chief Prayut then seized power from the Pheu Thai government, and Yingluck followed Thaksin into self-imposed exile. Prayut has ruled Thailand since, announcing in July that he would not seek re-election and will retire from politics.

“His opponents and enemies have done everything to (Thaksin), including overthrowing him in the military coup, not once but twice – in 2006 against him, in 2014 against his sister. They have dissolved his parties twice,” said Thitinan. “We’ve gone through so much in Thailand.”

Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn stepped into the limelight this year, selected by the Pheu Thai party as one of three prime ministerial candidates for the May election – before the Move Forward Party swept to its unexpected victory.

A window of opportunity

The meteoric rise of Move Forward could have provided an opportunity for Thaksin’s long-awaited return to Thailand, analysts say.

The party goes further than even Pheu Thai ever had in calling for reform, including proposed changes to the military, the economy, the decentralization of power, and reforms to the previously untouchable monarchy.

It’s backed by many young people who “saw that Thailand was going nowhere,” said Thitinan. “The military, the royalist conservative establishment was keeping Thailand down and squandering their future.”

But that agenda poses a risk to the establishment – a powerful clique that maintains deep ties to the military, royalist and business establishments. It also takes the heat off Thaksin, who for years had posed the biggest obstacle to Thailand’s leaders, said Thitinan.

“This is now a window for Thaksin to make a deal because he no longer is the threat,” he said. “He’s 74 years old, his party lost the election for the first time … Move Forward is the real threat, and therefore Thaksin is making a move to come back.”

Political observers have speculated that Thaksin may have struck some kind of deal with Thai authorities for his return, given his court convictions and the charges against him.

Thaksin still enjoys solid support from a loyal base that may celebrate his homecoming – but he also has his fair share of critics who point to his alleged corruption, massive wealth and autocratic style.

And the nation he will return to is very different from the one he left. The rising discontent, especially among the younger generation, has seen previously unthinkable shows of dissent – including mass protests in 2020 demanding reform of the monarchy.

“To me, Thai politics has moved beyond Thaksin,” said Thitinan. “It’s no longer about Thaksin populism in Thailand – it’s about institutional reforms of the royalist establishment that the Move Forward Party is proposing.”

Any agreement Thaksin strikes with the Thai establishment could be seen as a betrayal of the principles he had once championed.

“Pheu Thai has been a victim of the royalist establishment for two decades, and now they’re making a deal with them to keep Move Forward away and out,” Thitinan said.

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