Thailand Braces for Thaksin’s Return

time2

A supporter of ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
A supporter of ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at a rally in Bangkok, June 11, 2007

When Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport opened in September 2006, the gleaming structure was supposed to serve as the triumphant showpiece of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s rule in Thailand. Plans for the new airport had been mulled over for decades, but only the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician appeared to have the wherewithal to get the project finished. One small problem: Nine days before Suvarnabhumi opened for flights, Thaksin was deposed in a bloodless military coup.

 

On Thursday the former PM, who has been living in self-imposed exile for the past 17 months, is expected to finally return home — landing at the very airport whose inauguration he was unable to attend. Upon his return to Bangkok, however, the 58-year-old Thaksin must face charges of corruption and abuse of power and will likely head to court to request bail soon after his arrival. (Thaksin’s wife, who also faces criminal charges, did the same when she returned home last month.) The legal troubles aren’t Thaksin’s only woes: Local authorities have frozen an estimated $1.9 billion his family made from selling its stake in a Thai telecom firm to a Singaporean conglomerate. And while some of Thaksin’s former allies have clawed their way back into power, recent political missteps and a vote-buying scandal threaten to undermine what stability has returned since the military junta allowed for general elections last December.

While the junta dissolved the former PM’s political party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), and banned over a hundred of its senior officials from politics for five years, Thaksin has remained a powerful political force. In December, the People’s Power Party — widely seen as a proxy for the disbanded TRT — won the most seats in the post-coup polls. Earlier this month the PPP’s coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, unveiled a cabinet chock-full of Thaksin loyalists: the Foreign Minister is Thaksin’s former lawyer and spokesman, while his brother-in-law has been named Education Minister. On Tuesday, Samak, whose government reinstated a diplomatic passport to Thaksin that the military junta had taken away, characterized his predecessor’s imminent return as “a good thing.”

But just weeks into its tenure, the PPP-led government is embroiled in controversy. Samak, a 72-year-old right-wing politician and former Bangkok governor, outraged many Thais when he insisted in a couple of recent interviews that only one person had been killed during a military massacre of leftist students in 1976. Considered Thailand’s Tiananmen, the crackdown resulted in at least 46 deaths according to official records; many former activists blame Samak for fanning the flames of anti-Communist sentiment that provided ideological cover for the bloodbath. Then, on Tuesday, Thailand’s election commission found PPP deputy leader and parliamentary speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat guilty of bribing local officials to campaign for the party prior to last December’s polls, charges that he denies. The ruling could eventually lead to the entire party being dissolved because Thai electoral law states that if a top party official is convicted of an electoral crime, the party itself could be disbanded.

With the PPP’s survival at stake, Samak called an emergency meeting of party leaders on Tuesday; meanwhile, some rural Thais, who are among Thaksin’s most faithful supporters, took the day off to celebrate their hero’s anticipated arrival. Last weekend, one fan group, called the Thaksin Loyalists’ Club, organized a “We Miss Thaksin” day in the northern city of Chiang Rai that was attended by hundreds of people. Hats and pins emblazoned with Thaksin’s face were passed out, while some supporters choked back tears. Another support group promised to hold a lavish welcome-home ceremony in Thaksin’s hometown, Chiang Mai.

But anti-Thaksin forces have promised to flood the streets, too. Hundreds of thousands of Thais rallied in Bangkok in the summer of 2006 to call for Thaksin’s resignation, furious over his family’s tax-free windfall from the sale of its telecom stake and the perception that Thaksin was burnishing his reputation at the expense of Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Now, with Thaksin’s planned return, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) — a coalition of mostly middle- and upper-class Bangkok residents — promises to agitate on the streets once more. On Monday, one PAD leader described Thailand’s current pro-Thaksin ruling coalition as “the ugliest government in history.”

In response, PPP representative Pracha Prasopdee boasted that the ruling party would mobilize 10 million supporters to overwhelm any anti-Thaksin protests. The ex-PM’s flight is expected to land at Suvarnabhumi Airport around nine in the morning — a lucky number in Thailand, as one pro-Thaksin website noted. But with thousands of people threatening to spill on to the streets, both in support and condemnation of Thailand’s most polarizing political figure, the hours after his arrival may not feel quite as auspicious.

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