Deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned on Thursday from 17 months in exile to face corruption charges, receiving a hero’s welcome from supporters and vowing to restore his reputation following his ouster in a coup.
Police briefly took the 58-year-old billionaire into custody after he arrived at Bangkok’s international airport on a Thai Airways flight from Hong Kong, and brought him before a top court where he was immediately released on bail.
While he could face up to 15 years behind prison bars, Thaksin’s 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 has pledged to stay out of politics, but his critics don’t believe him and say he already has been exerting influence from behind the scenes.
Just hours after arriving, Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee said that government would consult Thaksin, who is legally banned from all political activity for five years, for economic advice.
“We can’t appoint him to any official position, but we’ll ask him for advice on the economy,” Surapong told reporters.
“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 told a press conference, where he was flanked by family members.
Describing himself as having a “sportsmanlike spirit,” he said did not return to Thailand after the coup in order to allow for healing in the country. But following the recent general election and return to democracy, “I have to come back to restore my reputation and fight for justice in court.”
Thaksin had tears in his eyes as emerged from the airport’s VIP room, where thousands of supporters erupted in cheers, waving signs saying “We love Thaksin!” The former prime minister knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, his palms pressed together in the Thai gesture of respect.
“This guy could eat gold for dinner, diamonds for breakfast, he has so much money he doesn’t care about money,” said Roga Kantapura, 33, who owns a car dealership in Bangkok. He called Thaksin a “hero, a real hero” devoted to the poor and the country.
Police escorted Thaksin 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.
After formally reading Thaksin the charges against him, the court released him on 8 million baht ($267,000; Dh979,890) 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 a 1 million baht ($33,530; Dh123,055) 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, said the office’s spokesman Thanatip Moonpruk.
A hearing on whether Thaksin would be indicted was set for April 3.
Altogether, he could face up to 15 years in jail for the cases lodged against him since September 2006, when military leaders ousted him and accused him of corruption and undermining democracy.
Thousands of supporters had gathered at Suvarnabhumi International Airport before dawn to dance, beat drums, sing and await his return.
Before boarding the plane in Hong Kong, Thaksin told reporters he had faith in the Thai justice system. He said he was a “little bit” concerned about his security but that there was little chance his return would spark violence.
Police Lt Gen Prung Bunpadung said about 1,000 police were deployed at the airport, along Thaksin’s route of travel and places he is expected to visit during the day.
Critics said Thaksin’s return could re-ignite the deep political divisions that led to his downfall.
“Thaksin will plunge the country into a greater crisis that people will not be able to tolerate any longer,” said former Bangkok governor and one-time Thaksin ally Chamlong Srimuang. He said Thaksin’s vow to stay out of politics was a “political game.”
Thaksin enjoys support among rural people, who appreciated his financial and social welfare policies. But he is deeply resented by the urban elite for his autocratic ways and the alleged mass corruption under his regime.
Some of his old opponents are threatening new protests against him. Months of strident anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok culminated in the September 19, 2006, military coup that toppled him while he was abroad.
His London-based exile was eased by his fortune, earned in telecommunications, and he kept himself in the spotlight by 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 – tried 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 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. (AP)
Thaksin returns to Thailand to face corruption charges