Thaksin Returns From Exile After Deal With Former Thai Foes

Back in 2008, the last time Thaksin Shinawatra stepped foot in Thailand, he was adored among the nation’s poorer masses and widely despised by the royalist elite who backed his removal in a coup two years earlier.

(Bloomberg) — Back in 2008, the last time Thaksin Shinawatra stepped foot in Thailand, he was adored among the nation’s poorer masses and widely despised by the royalist elite who backed his removal in a coup two years earlier.

On Tuesday, the former prime minister returned to Thailand after his political allies cut a deal with the same military-backed establishment that spent years overturning his party’s election victories through coups and court decisions. He bowed before a portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn and then waved to hundreds of supporters clad in red at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport, with some chanting “We Love Thaksin!” and “Thaksin, Keep Fighting!”

Upon his arrival, Thaksin was ordered by the Supreme Court to serve a total of eight years in jail for his role in three corruption cases. He is lodged in an isolated room of a prison hospital in Bangkok due to his health issues, and will remain in a five-day quarantine, officials said.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has the power to pardon any criminals. Thaksin can now submit a petition for a royal pardon though the process might take one to two months, Sitthi Sutivong, deputy director-general of Department of Corrections, told a briefing.

Prior to taking off on a private jet from Singapore, Thaksin hugged his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra — a former prime minister ousted in a 2014 coup who is also living in exile. 

Thaksin’s arrival coincides with a vote for prime minister later in the day, after his party officially joined forces with conservative groups previously aligned with former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, an ex-army chief who had led the coup against Yingluck and served as the nation’s leader ever since. The bloc’s candidate to become prime minister is Srettha Thavisin, a member of the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party who spent years in the real estate industry.

With the next government set to include military and pro-establishment groups, the real winner will be the conservatives irrespective of who becomes the prime minister, according to Napon Jatusripitak, visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. 

“Pheu Thai is being used as a buffer to allow the conservatives to stay in power with legitimacy and stability,” Napon said. “If anything goes wrong Pheu Thai will take the fall.” 

The awkward 11-party alliance emerged after both camps saw their interests align in the wake of a May election that produced a stunning win for Move Forward, a party that advocated changes to a law forbidding criticism of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other top royals. The royalist parties wanted to keep Move Forward out of power, while Thaksin sought to strike a deal that would allow him to return to Thailand after 15 years of shuttling between Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and London.

“Pheu Thai is the most powerful party to battle the emergence of Move Forward, after the electoral defeat of the conservative parties,” said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. “As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

READ: Why Two Thai Coups Can’t Keep Thaksin’s Family Down: QuickTake

Political Drama

Thaksin’s return marks a full-circle moment in Thailand’s political drama, which has seen a cycle of coups and deadly street protests erode the nation’s competitiveness as a Southeast Asian manufacturing destination since the turn of the century. Foreign investors have dumped about $3.8 billion of Thai stocks this year, triggering an almost 8% slump in the main stock index to rank it among Asia’s worst performers.

It’s unclear how much Thailand’s outlook will change after a new government is formed, assuming the coalition doesn’t fall apart at the last minute. On Monday, the group pledged a mix of cash handouts and fiscal measures to stimulate an economy that expanded 1.8% in the second quarter, well below a consensus forecast of 3% growth. 

In May, Thaksin said he would go through the judicial process and also asked for permission to return, without providing more details on the request.

“It’s all my own decision for the love and bond I have for my family, homeland, and our master,” Thaksin said at the time.

Thaksin, a former telecom billionaire, first rose to power in 2001 after pledging to revive Thai growth in the wake of the Asian financial crisis and help poorer citizens with cheap healthcare and debt relief measures. His party won 75% of seats up for grabs in a 2005 election, spooking a royalist establishment that had allowed only limited democracy since Thailand abolished absolute monarchy in 1932.

Somjai Trichala, 70-year-old retiree who camped outside the airport since early morning, said she was  to see Thaksin return. “I love him very much. His 30-baht healthcare scheme saved my family from having to sell our lands.”

Change of Guard

Thaksin was ousted in a coup the following year, kicking off a power struggle lasting almost two decades in which his political allies would win elections only to see unelected generals, bureaucrats and judges overturn them, using a variety of methods. 

This year’s election, however, saw Pheu Thai finish in second place despite being led by Thaksin’s youngest daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who turned 37 on Monday. That marked a changing of the guard, as younger Thais become more disillusioned with an establishment that has restricted democracy. 

Suddenly the most popular politician in Thailand wasn’t affiliated with Thaksin. Harvard-educated Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, proved both more democratic and ideological, willing to talk about sensitive issues related to the monarchy — something Thaksin had always resisted.

The establishment quickly moved to block Pita from taking power, with the military-appointed Senate — mandated by a constitution written after the 2014 coup — preventing him from becoming prime minister. That paved the way for Thaksin’s Pheu Thai to cut a deal with the military, cementing his return and helping conservatives defuse what they perceive to be the biggest threat to the monarchy. 

“This election has been about Thaksin from the beginning,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University. “His return will strengthen the conservative establishment that was already weakened by the election process. This will delay the democratic process in Thailand.” 

–With assistance from Pathom Sangwongwanich, Suttinee Yuvejwattana, Anuchit Nguyen and Janine Phakdeetham.

(Updates with details of prison term, royal pardon petition from third paragraph.)

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