Home free, Thai tycoon Thaksin unlikely to retire quietly


  • World
  • Monday, 19 Feb 2024

FILE PHOTO: Thailand's former premier Thaksin Shinawatra speaks to journalists outside his home in Dubai, after Puea Thai Party's Yingluck Shinawatra announced her coalition in Bangkok July 4, 2011.REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh/File Photo

(Corrects paragraph 11 to "her" from "his")

(Reuters) - In his final months in self-imposed exile avoiding jail, Thailand's billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared his time as a fugitive was over and he was ready to face the music.

"I want permission," the tycoon said on social media last May. "It has been 17 years that I have been separated from my family. I am old."

It is still unclear from whom Thailand's most wanted man was seeking a green light to come home.

Thais had heard it all before during Thaksin's years of backchannel communications with his influential enemies and the unsuccessful leveraging of his immense political clout to try to negotiate a favourable route home.

But he finally made good on his promise in a dramatic return in August, culminating in his release on Sunday from detention a free man in his homeland for the first time in 15 years.

And doing time could have been a lot more difficult for the former police colonel.

Sentenced to eight years for abuse of power and conflicts of interest, Thaksin, 74, spent only a few hours in prison before being transferred to a hospital complaining of chest pains.

His term was commuted to one year by the king and after six months in a luxury hospital wing, Thaksin was paroled because of his age and his health, the full state of which has yet to be revealed.

'MY FIGHTER'

"He hasn't seen the air and sun outside for 180 days and hasn't returned to this house for 17 years #finallyhome," his daughter Paetongtarn said on Instagram on Sunday, with an image of a glum-looking Thaksin by a swimming pool, wearing a neck brace and with his arm in a padded sling.

Her sister Pintongta posted the same picture, with the words "My Fighter".

The image is a stark contrast to the more spritely Thaksin who returned six months ago on his private jet in a crisp suit to greet ecstatic crowds, or the one in videos Paetongtarn had posted on Facebook in the past three years of him running down stairs, curling a dumbbell and pounding energetically at a punching bag.

Thailand's most polarising premier is back, officially retired, but widely expected to exert his outsized influence on politics, as he has during years of intermittent turmoil that saw massive street protests and the toppling of three popular Shinawatra-backed governments, two of those in military coups.

Things appear a lot calmer now, and in his favour.

Daughter Paetongtarn is the leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, his ally and fellow tycoon Srettha Thavisin is prime minister, and Thaksin's sworn enemies in the royalist military and conservative establishment appear to have mellowed towards him, at least for now.

"He's a mover and shaker, not an idler, not a couch potato... he certainly will have some influence. Now, to what extent?" said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

COLLISION COURSE

A policeman who turned a computer leasing business into a telecommunications conglomerate, Thaksin was a mould-breaking premier who won the hearts and votes of millions of working class Thais with populist giveaways from cash handouts and village loans to farm subsidies and universal healthcare.

Their loyalty made his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) political machine unstoppable, with the party and its two other incarnations winning five elections since 2001, two of those in landslides.

But Thaksin's soaring popularity and brash character put him on a collision course with an old guard of conservatives, generals and old money families with sway over key institutions, and an eagerness to clip his wings.

Instead of respecting Thailand's patronage networks, Thaksin created his own, with policies, concessions and appointments that benefited a new breed of capitalists alongside his family's own business interests, stoking public anger and allegations of rampant cronyism, which he rejects.

The Shinawatra family's tax-free $1.9 billion sale of its 49% stake in Shin Corporation to a Singapore state firm in 2006 was the beginning of his downfall, triggering "yellow shirt" protests that led to a coup while overseas.

His party was dissolved for fraud and investigators started looking into his family's "unusual wealth". Thaksin fled abroad to dodge jail for abuse of power.

While in Dubai and Britain, $1.4 billion worth of Shinawatra assets were seized. Thaksin maintained a high profile by buying, then selling, football club Manchester City, in his third attempt to own an English Premier League team.

Thaksinite administrations came to power in 2008 and 2011 but both fell, including one led by sister Yingluck Shinawatra, which was toppled by the military in 2014. Yingluck fled overseas to avoid jail for negligence over a botched rice subsidy scheme.

Commentators in Thailand are already predicting it won't be long before Thaksin starts trying to pull the strings again.

"Unless his health is truly severe as the doctors claimed, it is impossible to think that Thaksin would retire himself to a quiet, non-political life," Pravit Rojanaphruk, a reporter for national newspaper Khaosod Daily, said in an opinion piece entitled "Who is Thai PM now?"

"Puppet or no puppet, Thaksin should wait and let Srettha prove himself as PM."

(This story has been corrected to say 'her' instead of 'his' in paragraph 11)

(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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