Thailand braces for ousted leader’s return

Thailand, trying to recover from two years of political turmoil, braced for the return of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from nearly 18 months in exile on Thursday, with his battle against an array of opponents far from over.

Rivals ranging from the royalist establishment to street-protest leaders will confront Thaksin after a coup and an army-appointed government failed to dent his popularity, as demonstrated by the general election in December that put his supporters back in power, analysts said.

”His return shows they have managed to weather the coup d’état and the junta has been shown up to be ineffective,” Chulalongkorn University’s Giles Ungphakorn said.

Despite allegations of presiding over rampant corruption by the generals who ousted him in a bloodless 2006 coup, Thaksin faces only one corruption charge, although prosecutors are deciding whether to bring more.

Newspapers and Thaksin opponents say last week’s removal of the Justice Ministry official supervising a probe of Thaksin suggests he is unlikely to see the inside of a court.

Suspicion is rife, they say, that the coalition government formed by Thaksin supporters following a December general election is eager to make the charges go away despite promising to let justice take its course.

The removal of the official prompted the leaders of the massive anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok in 2006 to threaten to go back to the streets if they believed that was really happening.

”Future street protests depend on the government’s actions and Thaksin’s,” protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul said.

Surrender

Thaksin is due to surrender himself to police at Bangkok airport on Thursday, then go to the Supreme Court to seek bail on a corruption charge relating to his wife’s purchase of a prime piece of Bangkok real estate while in office.

”I believe in my innocence; I did nothing wrong,” Thaksin told Thai PBS television in Hong Kong, confirming his return to Bangkok on Thursday. ”The investigation was carried out by a committee of my rivals and I am ready to prove my innocence.”

Thaksin, his party dissolved after the coup and he banned from politics for five years for electoral fraud, insisted on Thursday he was done with politics despite widespread disbelief at home.

Even if that were his intention, Thaksin would be dragged into Thailand’s faction-ridden politics nonetheless, analysts said.

”We will have two prime ministers working at the same time — one officially and the other unofficially,” Chulalongkorn University political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said. Tension would arise inevitably between Thaksin and Samak Sundaravej, who ran in the campaign as ”Thaksin’s proxy” and is now Prime Minister, he said.

Thaksin chose to return now because of widening rifts among factions in Samak’s People Power Party, which leads a coalition with a poor image already, Thitinan said. ”If he waits too long, the PPP will lose its credibility, a dubious Cabinet with a lot of controversial faces.”

Police said they expect up to 10 000 supporters to show up at Suvarnabhumi airport, which Thaksin insisted open in 2006 even though experts said it was not ready despite years of delay, and more than 1 000 police and soldiers will be deployed.

”His return should help bring us a good economy as we are suffering rising prices,” street vendor Plueng Omsin (48) said. — Reuters

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