Asia-Pacific News

Thaksin Returns to Thailand to Cheers, Tears


Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made an emotional return from exile on Thursday, swearing to stay out of politics despite a widespread belief he will run the country from behind the scenes. 

Within minutes of arriving, the telecoms billionaire surrendered to police on a corruption charge, then, with tears in his eyes, left the terminal to greet the land of his birth after 18 months of enforced separation since the 2006 coup. 

His palms clasped together in a gesture of respect, the 59-year-old knelt down and placed his forehead on the pavement. 

Thousands of supporters waving roses and "We love Thaksin" banners cheered their hero, who was then whisked away in a motorcade of limousines to the Supreme Court, where he was granted 8 million baht ($268,500) bail. 

Thaksin, ousted by generals accusing him of presiding over rampant corruption and disrespecting revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, insisted that his political career was over. 

"I've got the heart of a sportsman. When the game is finished, it is finished," he told a packed news conference at a swish Bangkok hotel. 

During his flight from Hong Kong he also struck a conciliatory note, suggesting he might not embark immediately on a campaign of vengeance against the generals who booted him out. 

"When the game is over, we must come together and settle our differences, forgive everything and help each other push the country forward," he told reporters on the plane, a celebratory glass of champagne in his hands. "I can prove my innocence. The allegations are empty."

Still, leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy that led 100,000-strong marches against Thaksin in Bangkok, protests which led to the coup, said they feared his allies in government would ensure he escaped the charge. 

"I want to warn those ministers who received political promotion from Thaksin they must not do anything to give the public the impression that they are returning power to him," spokesman Suriyasai Katasila told reporters. "If we find they are trying to intervene in the judicial process directly or indirectly, we will not sit idly by."

Tears, Cheers, Fears

Thaksin, the first elected Thai prime minister to complete a full term in office in 75 years of on-off democracy, said he would not even meddle in politics despite the administration elected in December being run by his allies. 

"I'll just voice concerns as a former prime minister, if I were to have any," he said. 

Few Thais believe him -- or want to believe him, despite him being banned from politics for five years after the coup for electoral fraud. His behaviour will affect the markets.

"The next question here is about political stability, whether the man can live up to his promises," Saengtham Jaranachaikul, a senior analyst at Thanachart Securities, told Reuters. "If he does the opposite, then it might stir up those who dislike him to come out on the streets again," he said.

The main stock index was up 0.62 percent at 0755 GMT in cautious trade as investors assessed the impact of Thaksin's return.

It was the support for Thaksin in the countryside and among urban workers that carried the People Power Party led by Samak Sundaravej to near an overall majority in December.

Voters expect and want Thaksin to be the man making decisions. 

"I love him so much," said 65-year-old Wilai Scott, who is married to a foreigner. "I want Thaksin to be PM again." 

In a sign of widespread support among Bangkok's rank and file, Wilai said the taxi driver taking her to the airport to greet Thaksin refused to accept a fare.

Even though his return appears to have been negotiated carefully, it represents a defeat, possibly temporary, for the military and royalist establishment who sought to erase Thaksin from the political map. 

Despite Thaksin's expressions of reconciliation, most analysts expect a renewed battle between him and the traditional elite for control of Thailand's future.