By Nontarat Phaicharoen
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s planned homecoming after 15 years of self-imposed exile is generating a mix of excitement and concern in the Southeast Asian country stuck in a political deadlock for the past two months.
Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn, announced last week that her father was expected to return to Thailand on Aug. 10, as the Pheu Thai Party, the main political vehicle of the Shinawatra dynasty, seeks to form a new government after a general election in May.
The announcement has provoked frenzied discussion about the fate awaiting the billionaire businessman, who fled Thailand in 2008 to escape a prison term for several different charges, including corruption and tax evasion. Many Thais are also speculating about what Thaksin’s arrival could mean for the country’s new government.
“He is not a murderer – he should come back. Thaksin was only morally guilty and was at risk from dictatorial threats,” said Somsak Jatukam, 61, a taxi driver in Bangkok.
Wanlee Subpradit, a 76-year-old retiree from Bangkok, said she would travel to the airport or Supreme Court to welcome Thaksin home.
“He is a good man and bright,” she told BenarNews on the streets of the capital. “Thailand’s economy would have been flagging forever without him governing.”
Thaksin, 74, was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and remains a controversial figure in Thailand. His populist economic policies endeared him to the country’s poor, especially in the north and northeast. But his critics have accused him of deep corruption, anti-monarchism and dividing the nation.
Businessman Sam Sanin, who hails from Songkhla in the country’s far south, said Thaksin deserved prison time, but he should not hurry home while the political situation was unsettled.
“He damaged the country,” the 55-year-old said. “He was prosecuted and jailed in a number of cases related to corruption.”
Wanlee, the pensioner, identified herself as part of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement that carried out mass protests after he was removed in the 2006 coup. She said she hoped Thaksin would receive a royal pardon. “I don’t think he will serve a jail term for too long,” she added.
Thailand’s national police chief, Gen. Damrongsak Kittiprapat, said last week that Thaksin would be detained upon arrival and referred to the Supreme Court.
He faces a combined 10-year jail term for three offenses, but Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said Thaksin could seek a royal pardon on the first day of his imprisonment.
Thaksin has been reluctant to return earlier over concerns he would be treated unfairly by the military-backed government that deposed his sister, Yingluck, in a coup in 2014. Her overthrow was spearheaded by then-Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s current caretaker prime minister who has led the country in one form or another since the coup nine years ago.
Some of Thaksin’s supporters still fear for his safety.
“I don’t want him to return yet because his rivals may attack him,” said Pakpoom Wiangnang, a 40-year-old businessman from Phrae province. “We are not 100% sure how the government will take shape.”
Thailand has been stuck in a political limbo since the general election on May 14.
Efforts to establish a coalition government by the election-winning Move Forward Party have hit major roadblocks, with top prime ministerial nominee Pita Limjaroenrat twice rebuffed by Parliament.
Conservative and pro-royal lawmakers have rallied against Pita, preventing him from securing majority support in the upper and lower houses.
Pheu Thai is now leading coalition talks and seeking to nominate its own candidate for prime minister.
A vote for prime minister was set for last Thursday, but had to be put off while the Constitutional Court considered a petition challenging the constitutionality of Parliament’s blocking of a July 19 vote against Pita. The court is expected to issue a decision related to the petition on Aug. 3.
Some observers say that Thaksin’s presence in the country could affect the formation of a Pheu Thai-led government, because he would face fierce opposition from pro-royalist activists and some Move Forward supporters.
His arrival could also see Move Forward jettisoned from a new governing coalition.
Pheu Thai leaders meanwhile have met lately with pro-royalist parties from the former ruling alliance, including Bhumjaithai, United Thai Nation and the Chat Thai Pattana Party. All have refused to join a coalition government that includes Move Forward, due to its ambitions to amend Thailand’s strict law against royal defamation.
In the past week, Pheu Thai has posted numerous videos to Facebook detailing Thaksin’s political career to coincide with his return.
Kritin Likitparinya, an office worker originally from Samut Prakarn province outside Bangkok, said Thaksin’s homecoming would be a victory for Thailand’s pro-democracy movement.
“Although we don’t know where the finish line is, allowing former prime minister Thaksin who has been in self-imposed exile to come home could be a practical starting point,” the 27-year-old said.
“Thaksin is a key character in Thai politics; whatever he does or is bullied about, can define the direction of domestic politics.”
Harry Pearl contributed to this report.