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Thaksin leaves Hong Kong for Thailand after 17 months of exile

Thaksin leaves Hong Kong for Thailand after 17 months of exile

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra left Hong Kong and began flying home Thursday after 17 months of exile, saying he was slightly worried about his security but that he had faith in Thailand's justice system.
After settling into first class on the Thai Airways flight, Thaksin read through the front pages of Thai newspapers. Some of the headlines were about tight security ahead of his arrival.
The 58-year-old billionaire politician has been accused of graft and abuse of power during his 2001-2006 time in office. He was expected to face arrest after arriving at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Surrounded by 40 followers before boarding the plane, Thaksin told reporters, "I believe in the Thai justice system, especially the court system. Normally in justice systems everywhere, a person is innocent until proved guilty."
He said that he was a "little bit" concerned about his security. But he added that there was little chance his return would spark violence. "The Thais are very peaceful," he said.
"I used to say when I was prime minister that there were attempts to assassinate me. Normally I would have some concerns but I hope that everyone is thinking of national reconciliation and they will prepare (security measures) for me well," he said.
Dressed in a black suit and matching tie, Thaksin was allowed to use the Hong Kong airport's diplomatic entrance while passing through immigration. He smiled and appeared relaxed as he strolled through the airport with a big entourage before settling into the Thai Airway's VIP lounge.
He stood in the lounge, ate a hardboiled egg, sipped water, chatted with friends and glanced at a TV news program about the U.S. presidential election.
Thaksin repeated his pledge to stay out of politics.
"I'm finished," he said.
He was travelling with two players with Britain's Manchester City soccer club, which Thaksin owns. The players _ goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and midfielder Kelvin Etuhu _ said they planned to hold some soccer clinics with Thai children and work out with the national team.
Schmeichel said, "We're looking forward to, one, going to Thailand, and we're looking forward to hopefully seeing Thaksin get back what's his."
Hundreds of supporters _ from the millions who gave his now-disbanded Thai Rak Thai party two huge election victories _ were expected to be on hand to greet his arrival.
But the former prime minister inspires fear and loathing almost as much as adulation, and his return could re-ignite the deep political divisions that led to his downfall.
On the one side are Thaksin's rural supporters, who appreciated the financial and social welfare policies he initiated. On the other are the urban elite who resented his autocratic ways and failure to clearly separate his own financial affairs from the national interest.
Already, some of his old opponents are threatening new protests against him. Months of strident anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok culminated in the Sept. 19, 2006, military coup that toppled him.
Neither his fans nor his foes take his pledge to quit politics very seriously.
His return marks another step in an impressive comeback from the political oblivion into which he seemed trapped after the coup, staged while he was abroad. His London-based exile was eased by his fortune, earned in telecommunications, and he busied himself with moves that kept him in the spotlight, such as buying Britain's Manchester City soccer club.
The forces that helped unseat Thaksin _ the military, Bangkok's educated middle class and the country's elite, including people associated with the country's monarchy _ worked hard to erase Thaksin's political legacy.
They changed the constitution to limit big parties' power and sought to demonize him as a corrupt destroyer of democracy, in addition to launching various criminal investigations.
But his rural supporters stayed loyal, in gratitude for programs such as cheap health care and low-interest loans, and Thaksin's path back was eased by the victory of a pro-Thaksin party in last December's general elections, the first since the coup.
The People's Power Party is regarded as a proxy for Thaksin, whose former party was disbanded by court order.
The replacement party ran on a platform of bringing Thaksin back home and reinstating his populist, pro-growth policies. It won the most seats in the lower house of Parliament, and earlier this month formed a six-party coalition government.
Thaksin had said he would not return until democracy was restored to Thailand, which was taken to mean a government which might not pressure him too hard on the legal front.
Thaksin and his wife Pojaman face corruption and conflict of interest charges in connection with her purchase of prime Bangkok real estate from a state agency in 2003, while he was prime minister. Pojaman returned to Thailand in January and was released on bail pending trial.
Thaksin also faces separate charges of concealing assets.
Altogether, he could face up to 15 years in jail for the cases already in progress against him.
Police will detain Thaksin on arrival and "they have to bring him to court," Rakkiat Wattapong, the Supreme Court secretary-general, said Wednesday.
The chief of Thaksin's legal defense team, Pichit Chuenban, said Thaksin would surrender to police and seek bail.
Thaksin has said the charges were cooked up by his political enemies.
Thaksin was born into a well-off Chinese-Thai business family in the northern city of Chiang Mai. He joined the police upon graduation from high school and later earned scholarships to American universities for graduate degrees in criminology.
With his fortune later made in the telecoms sector, he founded the Thai Rak Thai party as a vehicle to propel him to the prime minister's job. He projected a dynamic image in the malaise that lingered after the country's 1997 financial crisis.
His 2005 re-election marked the first time a single party captured a majority of parliamentary seats in a free election, and followed the equally impressive accomplishment of becoming the first civilian prime minister to serve out a full four-year term.