Thailand’s fugitive figurehead returns home and goes straight to jail

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Singapore: On a day of high political stakes in Thailand, polarising ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has made a long-awaited homecoming and been escorted to prison to begin the sentence that has hung over his head for more than a decade.

After 15 years in self-imposed exile, thousands of supporters of the 74-year-old lined the pavement outside the private jet terminal at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport on Tuesday as he arrived on a Gulfstream from Singapore, on the way from his long-time base in Dubai.

Thaksin Shinawatra greets supporters on his arrival at Don Mueang airport. Credit: AP

The billionaire telecommunications tycoon-turned-leader was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled two years later to evade abuse-of-power charges that he denied and maintained were trumped up to serve the interests of his military-aligned and royalist establishment rivals.

He had not set foot in Thailand since then but returned just 24 hours after the announcement of an unlikely post-election pact between the party he founded, Pheu Thai, and its military-aligned former sworn enemies. His arrival came just hours before a parliamentary vote for a new prime minister.

“It’s time for me to be with the Thai people,” he told Nikkei Asia in Singapore before embarking on the final leg of his journey home.

Thaksin, accompanied by his children and grandchildren, had only time to greet the crowd of delirious devotees gathered at the airport in Bangkok, before having to face the jail time he has long avoided.

Crowds gathered to welcome Thaksin back to the country.Credit: Getty Images

Soon after arriving, he was escorted in a police convoy to the Supreme Court and then to prison in the capital.

It had been unclear how much of the 10-year sentence awaiting him he would actually serve upon his re-appearance, whether it would be under house arrest, or if he would be granted a royal pardon.

Amid multiple false near-returns, Thaksin said he was prepared to submit to whatever the Thai legal system had in store for him.

The Supreme Court later confirmed in a statement that he would spend eight years in prison.

A general view outside Klong Prem Central Prison, where former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was headed to upon his return.Credit: Getty

Significantly, his return comes with Pheu Thai having struck an agreement with military proxy parties who have been long-time adversaries, a marriage of convenience engineered in a bid to form government and bring an end to a three-month political deadlock.

“Certainly, there must be some deal, some assurance that he doesn’t have to stay long in prison,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, the head of the Thailand studies program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“He’s still very influential behind the Pheu Thai party. He is still very much a politician even if he has been disqualified.”

A motorcade transports Thaksin to the Supreme Court, from where he was escorted to prison.Credit: Reuters

After placing a close second in the May election, the party joined in a coalition with the reformist Move Forward Party, whose first-place finish appeared to herald a stunning change of the guard after almost a decade of rule by the military and parties led by ex-army chiefs.

Having campaigned on a platform that included amending the country’s notorious lese-majeste law, however, Move Forward’s charismatic, US-educated frontman Pita Limjaroenrat was blocked from becoming prime minister by members of the military-appointed Senate.

The country has been at an impasse since, with outgoing prime minister and 2014 coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha remaining in caretaker mode even after his own party was trounced in the election and with him having announced that he would retire from politics.

On Monday, a circuit breaker finally appeared to emerge with Pheu Thai unveiling an 11-party tie-up that includes the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party previously led by Prayut and the United Thai Party, which the retired general formed ahead of this year’s election.

Supporters of the former Thai prime minister gather for his arrival outside Don Mueang International Airport.Credit: Getty

Under the arrangement Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin, a 61-year-old former property development high-flyer, will become prime minister subject to a vote by the lower and upper houses of parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

– with Reuters

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