Page last updated at 14:07 GMT, Thursday, 28 February 2008

Thaksin's return raises dilemmas

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Thaksin Shinawatra
Few believe that Thaksin will stay out of politics for long
When they unseated his government 17 months ago, Thailand's coup leaders argued that Thaksin Shinawatra was a dangerously divisive figure.

If they had not moved there would have been bloodshed, they said.

So there was considerable apprehension about the former prime minister's homecoming.

Would there be clashes between his supporters and opponents? Would his supporters run wild?

A solid line of police ran the full length of the roads running up to the airport.

They need not have worried. Several thousand Thaksin fans showed up, but set a joyous, festive tone - dancing, cheering and singing along to songs praising him as the man who had lifted the living standards of poorer Thais.

"This is the happiest day ever for me," said one woman in a "Club Thaksin" T-shirt.

"I've waited for over a year for him to return. I've thought about him and missed him and worried about him. He is very capable - and cute."

There was a great roar from them as Mr Thaksin emerged from the airport terminal, knelt down to kiss the ground, and gave his supporters a brief wave before being whisked away in a police motorcade to hear the two charges of corruption filed against him last year.

Risky venture

Mr Thaksin joined the conciliatory mood. Before his flight from Hong Kong he admitted to having mixed feelings, and looked nervous - as well he might.

Thaksin's supporters waiting outside the airport 28/02/08
Thaksin may have his critics, but he has many thousands of fans
He could, in theory, go to prison for more than 10 years if found guilty.

But to persistent questions about his political ambitions, he stated again and again that he did not have any.

"In my life I have devoted a lot for my country, and I have done a lot politically," he said.

"My family doesn't want me to get involved in politics again."

He also pleaded for reconciliation with the elite figures who ousted him.

"I have no desire to seek revenge against anyone. It will be best for all of us to reduce our ego, and our prejudice.

"All of us should compromise and unite for our country and our beloved king."

The former prime minister is taking care to stress his loyalty to the king; suspicion that he was hostile to the monarchy was one of the factors that prompted the generals to launch their coup.

Almost no-one in Thailand believes he has lost his appetite for power.

"Complete nonsense," says Professor Surat Horachaikul from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"He is funding the People Power Party that is now in government. All the cabinet ministers went to Hong Kong before they were appointed to consult with Thaksin. It is impossible for him to be out of politics."

Divisive figure

For those who campaigned against him in 2006, the prospect of Thaksin Shinawatra pulling the strings behind a government stacked with his allies is an alarming one.

Ekasit Paosila
I am surprised at the timing of his return, but not that he returned
Ekasit Paosila

For them his two administrations were characterised by abrasive, arrogant leadership, by a frightening accumulation of unaccountable power and by human rights violations on a scale not seen in decades.

Those who support him cannot wait to see him back in office.

For the most part they backed his hard-line policies towards drug dealers and the southern insurgency, which cost thousands of lives.

To them he was the first prime minister who seemed to care about the poor, the first whose policies made tangible improvements to their lives.

He is a deeply polarising figure, an unfamiliar phenomenon in a country whose politics has traditionally been messy, opaque but definitely unexciting.

Plan of action

Whatever his true intentions, Mr Thaksin will have to stay out of the limelight for some time, and he must clear himself of the two corruption charges.

By the standards of Thai corruption, the allegations do not amount to much - allegedly helping his wife buy land from a government agency at a bargain price, and concealing his continuing role in the family's giant telecoms business after he took office.

He probably will not be convicted. But there is still a risk.

Thailand's former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (c) along with his family, at a  press conference ( 28/02/08)
Thaksin will find it hard to stay out of the limelight
He will also have to get the five-year ban on political office, imposed on him last year, lifted if he is to have any chance of a political role.

For that he would need the help of the current Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej who, although appointed by Mr Thaksin to run the People Power Party's successful election campaign in December, is showing signs of defiance.

During the election campaign he promised that lifting the ban on Mr Thaksin and 110 of his colleagues would be a top priority.

After forming a government, though, Mr Samak changed his tune and said it could wait until the end of his term in office.

Mr Thaksin may have to use his authority and financial muscle to stop bickering between the factions in his party.

It is proving to be a far clumsier collection of politicians than the Thai Rak Thai party he ran before the coup.

He will also have to concentrate in getting almost $2bn in assets unfrozen.

He says he is still keen to invest more in Manchester City, the football club he bought last year.

He has stressed that he wants to travel back to Britain frequently to run the club - a shrewd and uncontroversial way of keeping himself in the public eye.

So he has plenty aside from politics to keep himself busy.

But do not count him out. If the current government keeps performing as dismally as it has so far, there could well be a public clamour to bring back the decisive, business-like leadership of the old Thaksin governments.

And Thaksin Shinawatra is not the kind of man to resist such calls.

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