thaksin touches down on thai soil

Posted on February 28, 2008

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The Thai powers-that-be must be regretting slapping corruption and other charges on former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, paving a way for his triumphant return to his homeland yesterday.

After a military coup deposed of him 17 months ago, Thaksin had gone into self-imposed exile, living in London and Hong Kong, declaring that he was done with politics and busy with the English Premiere League football club Manchester City he bought.

But those generals probably never had guessed that in the country’s recent elections in December, Thaksin’s allies could regroup into the People Power Party, win convincingly, and get back into power. One of Thaksin’s key allies, Samak Sundaravej, is now the country’s prime minister.

Thaksin faces two counts of corruption and conflict of interest in the purchase of land from a state agency while he was in office. His wife is a co-defendant. He is out on bail, but has been barred from leaving the country without the court’s permission.

It is now tough territory for the court, which could put him behind bars for up to 10 years if he is found guilty. Their task is hard as the charges are seen as politically-motivated. It is made even worse considering the public outpouring of emotion for Thaksin, who arrived in Bangkok to a hero’s welcome, with thousands of his supporters cheering and dancing when he touched down, praising him for his achievements and calling him the best prime minister the country has ever had. The court must be mindful of the potential backlash and violence if the still highly-popular Thaksin is convicted in what is seen as flimsy charges.

Thaksin’s timing in going back to Thailand now, is a wisely-calculated move, as the government is friendly to him and the judicial system is largely seen as being amenable to the current political climate. The military coup against him has also backfired, with many of the electorate upset at the ineffectiveness of the military junta, thus helping Thaksin seem like an even stronger leader in comparison.

Though no saint, Thaksin has done more than previous administrations to help the country’s rural poor, with populist policies such as handouts and loans. His dynamic, though abrasive style of governing, has also been credited with spurring Thailand’s economic boom. Yet the elites in the country’s urban areas, such as Bangkok, oppose him for what they view as his corruption, enriching himself and family through the government, such as through the sale of the share of the country’s telecommunication company and the human rights violations from his anti-drug campaigns in the south. They are also likely to be miffed that he had not had to count on their traditional patronage, drawing his power base instead from the rural poor.

Still, many Thais see Thaksin as a force of change for Thailand’s political culture for the better. While wary of the centralization of power he had presided over, they acknowledge the lift he has given to the political culture of Thailand, animating Thai opposition parties and spurring them on to be more creative to keep up with the ex-prime minister’s innovative tactics.

No one seems to believe Thaksin’s claims that he will no longer be a player in the political scene, not when he was a big political donor to the winning political party and the puppet-master pulling the strings of the present cabinet’s appointments.

He had said he would be the country’s economic adviser, which is the closest he has come to admitting playing a role in the process.

For now though, he seems to be content with clearing his name and unfreezing his $2 billion worth of assets.

But whether he jumps back into the political fray, Thaksin remains as polarizing a figure as ever, with the powers-that-be at a loss at how to deal with him.

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