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Critics fear deposed Thai PM Thaksin plotting to retake power after return from exile

Critics fear deposed Thai PM Thaksin plotting to retake power after return from exile

Deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned home from exile to a rousing welcome Thursday in what critics fear is his first step toward regaining power, despite corruption charges that could put him behind bars and a vow to renounce politics forever.
The 58-year-old billionaire, with tears in his eyes and forehead pressed to the ground, was given a hero's welcome by thousands of supporters after he landed at Bangkok's international airport to end 17 months of exile.
Within two hours he was out on bail in two separate court cases, and later told a news conference that he had "come back to restore my reputation and fight for justice in court" after being ousted in a military coup.
About US$2.1 billion (euro1.4 billion) in assets belonging to him and his family have been frozen until the cases are resolved.
"I don't want to be involved in politics any longer. I want to live peacefully with my family and die in this motherland," Thaksin said, adding that he would devote his time to charity and sports development.
But opponents said Thaksin is plotting a comeback, a move that could spark the same mass demonstrations and deep political divisions which preceded his ouster on Sept. 19, 2006.
"Nobody believes that Thaksin is pulling out of politics because what he is doing is a political game he has been playing all along from behind the scenes," said former Bangkok Governor and one-time Thaksin mentor Chamlong Srimuang. "Thaksin will plunge the country into a greater crisis that people will not be able to tolerate any longer."
Just hours after his arrival, Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee announced that the government would consult Thaksin, who is legally banned from all political activity for five years, for economic advice.
Although Thaksin's fate still hangs in the balance, his return was a triumphant re-entry to the center stage of Thai politics despite efforts by the country's most powerful institutions, including the military, to eradicate his legacy and keep him at bay.
"He's in the back seat but he is still driving the car," said former Senator and activist Jon Ungpakorn.
After arriving from Hong Kong, Thaksin was escorted by police to the Supreme Court, where he and his wife Pojaman face corruption and conflict of interest charges in connection with her purchase of a prime piece of Bangkok real estate in 2003, while he was prime minister.
The court released him on 8 million baht (US$267,000; euro177,000) bail and set a trial date of March 12, said court secretary Rakkiat Pattanapong. Thaksin will be barred from leaving the country unless he receives permission from the court.
He then proceeded to the Attorney General's Office, where he was freed on 1 million baht (US$33,530; euro22,300) bail in a second case in which he and his wife are accused of concealing ownership of shares in SC Asset, the family's real estate holding company, office spokesman Thanatip Moonpruk said.
A hearing on whether Thaksin will be indicted was set for April 3.
Altogether, he could face up to 15 years in jail for the cases lodged against him since the bloodless coup, when military leaders ousted him for alleged corruption and abuse of power.
But some believe he will win acquittal.
"The pressure he will put on the judiciary will be unbearable," said Kraisak Choonhavan, a member of Parliament with the opposition Democrat party. He noted a 2001 case in which Thaksin, amid bribery allegations, was cleared in an 8-7 decision by judges on charges he failed to declare all his wealth as required of Thai politicians.
Thaksin also enjoys strong support among rural people and the urban poor, who appreciated his financial and social welfare policies.
"This guy could eat gold for dinner, diamonds for breakfast, he has so much money he doesn't care about money," said Roga Kantapura, a car dealer who joined thousands of supporters at Suvarnabhumi Airport before dawn to dance, beat drums, sing and await Thaksin's return.
Roga called Thaksin a "hero, a real hero" devoted to the poor and the country.
But Thaksin is deeply resented by the Bangkok elite, the military and people associated with the monarchy for his autocratic ways and alleged massive corruption under his rule.
These forces tried to erase Thaksin's political legacy, changing the constitution and launching various criminal investigations.
But 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 Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded by court order.
"From now on the ministers will consult Thaksin, their real leader, instead of (Prime Minister) Samak Sundaravej. Surely Samak is not happy and uneasy with Thaksin's return because he is well aware that the real leader has come back," said Sombat Thamrongtranyawong, a professor at the National Institute of Development Administration.
Jon, the former senator, said Thaksin might not return as prime minister, but could run things behind the scenes like Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, who retired years ago but still has great influence there.
During his London-based exile, Thaksin's flair for political theater kept him in the domestic spotlight, especially when he purchased Britain's Manchester City soccer club. Two of its players accompanied Thaksin to Thailand, planning to hold a soccer clinic here.


Updated : 2021-05-15 07:29 GMT+08:00