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Former Thailand PM jailed on return from exile

The billionaire who was removed in the 2006 coup ‘enters legal process’ as supporters celebrate his return
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra greets his supporters after landing at Bangkok's Don Mueang airport on Aug. 22

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra greets his supporters after landing at Bangkok's Don Mueang airport on Aug. 22. (Photo: AFP)

Published: August 22, 2023 05:18 AM GMT
Updated: August 22, 2023 11:32 AM GMT

Former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra returned to the kingdom on Aug. 22 after 15 years in exile and was immediately jailed, just hours before his party's candidate was elected prime minister.

The Supreme Court ordered the 74-year-old billionaire to serve eight years on old graft charges, though it is not clear how much time he will serve behind bars, as his Pheu Thai party forms the government and rumors swirl of a deal for leniency.

Thaksin, loved and loathed in almost equal measure in Thailand, landed in a private jet at Bangkok's Don Mueang airport Tuesday morning, and was greeted by hundreds of noisy "Red Shirt" supporters waving banners and singing songs.

He emerged briefly from the terminal building to bow and offer a floral garland at a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a mark of respect before waving to supporters.

More Red Shirts lined the streets as the former Manchester City owner was taken to the Supreme Court.

There, he was ordered to serve eight years for three convictions passed in his absence -- one linked to his former Shin Corp company, another linked to a bank loan, and a lottery case.

Just hours after he landed, parliament approved business tycoon Srettha Thavisin as prime minister at the head of a coalition led by the Pheu Thai party -- the latest incarnation of Thaksin's political movement.

Pheu Thai's broad alliance includes parties from its old enemies in the military -- which ousted both Thaksin and his sister Yingluck as prime minister.

This has led to widespread speculation of a backroom arrangement with Thailand's powerful pro-military royalist establishment to let Thaksin off lightly -- though Pheu Thai has denied such a deal.

Loved and loathed

Thaksin has said he was willing to face justice in order to return home and see his grandchildren -- though he has long maintained the criminal charges against him are politically motivated.

"I would like to request permission to return to live on Thai soil and share the air with my fellow Thai brothers and sisters," he posted Monday on Twitter, which has been rebranded as X.

For all his long absence from the country, Thaksin remains Thailand's most influential -- and controversial -- politician of modern times.

His career has included two election victories, defeat in a coup, criminal charges, and long years of self-imposed exile.

Loved by the rural poor for policies including cheap healthcare and the minimum wage, he is reviled by the pro-military and royalist elite who saw his rule as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to Thai social order.

Parties linked to Thaksin have dominated elections since 2001 -- until this year when the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats.

Hundreds of Red Shirts waited through the night at the airport to welcome him with songs and banners -- most decked out in their usual crimson colors.

"I am a real Red Shirt -- whenever they want our support, I will always be there for them," Karuna Wantang, 70, a retired bureaucrat from Nongkai, in the country's northeast, said.

"I don't only like him but I love him."

The Department of Corrections said Thaksin had been isolated in prison because of health problems, including heart and lung complaints, but his family would be able to visit him after five days.

Asked about the possibility of a royal pardon, the deputy director of the Department of Corrections Sithi Suthiwong told reporters the process took "about one to two months, if the documents are sufficient".

"Relevant parties can apply for the royal pardon procedure. We will hand it to the justice minister and then the prime minister passes it to the Privy Council," he said.

PM vote

Srettha sailed through the confirmation vote in parliament, easily passing the 374 ballots needed to secure the prime minister's job.

His victory ends three months of political deadlock and wrangling after MFP beat Pheu Thai into second place in May's polls.

Despite winning most seats, MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat saw his bid to become prime minister sunk by conservative junta-appointed senators, who were spooked by his party's determination to reform royal insult laws and tackle business monopolies.

The new coalition has outraged many Pheu Thai supporters, and Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asian politics expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the party would expect a payoff.

"If he (Thaksin) doesn't receive a royal pardon within a certain amount of time then they might begin to question whether they entered a coalition under false pretenses," he said.

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