Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former prime minister of Thailand who had been living in self-exile for over 15 years, made a remarkable return to his homeland on Tuesday. His comeback coincided with a parliamentary vote aimed at resolving a prolonged political standoff following elections that favored a progressive party, setting the stage for a fresh wave of political uncertainty in the nation.
Thaksin, a prominent figure and member of a powerful political dynasty, had previously served as Prime Minister from 2001 until his ousting in a 2006 military coup while he was attending a UN meeting in New York. Subsequently, he briefly returned to Thailand before fleeing in 2008, following a corruption conviction. Upon his return this Tuesday, the Supreme Court sentenced him to eight years in prison, though it remains uncertain whether he will serve this term.
Speculation about Thaksin’s return had been mounting for weeks, with the first concrete sign appearing when videos showed his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, also a former prime minister living in exile, embracing him before he boarded a plane in Singapore.
Thaksin’s arrival drew the attention of thousands of people who tracked his private jet as it landed at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport at 9 a.m. local time. Approximately 90 minutes later, he emerged from the airport’s private jet terminal accompanied by his children, greeting a crowd of supporters and paying respects to a portrait of Thailand’s king.
Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn, shared a photo capturing her father meeting his infant granddaughter for the first time.
Thaksin is currently in the custody of Thailand’s Corrections Department. Following a medical assessment, doctors classified him as a “fragile group” due to his health conditions, including a history of heart disease and a lung infection from COVID-19. Consequently, he will be held in a separate room under 24-hour surveillance, according to Sitthi Sutivong, a spokesperson for the Corrections Department. While Thaksin can apply for a royal pardon, no such requests have been made by him or his family thus far. To accommodate the numerous visitors wishing to see Thaksin, a special visiting room will be set up.
Thailand’s political landscape remains deeply divided, and Thaksin’s return further complicates the situation. Thaksin’s populist policies, which appealed to Thailand’s rural and working-class citizens, have had a significant impact on the nation’s politics over the past two decades.
On the same day as Thaksin’s return, Thailand’s parliament voted to appoint real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin as the country’s next prime minister, leading a coalition led by the Thaksin-affiliated Pheu Thai party, which came in second in the May election. In a surprising turn of events, Pheu Thai formed an alliance with its former military adversaries to secure enough parliamentary votes to establish a government.
This move, which contradicts Pheu Thai’s election campaign to keep the military out of power, has sparked controversy and frustration among the millions of Thai citizens who voted for progressive parties in May. Pheu Thai Party leader Cholnan Srikaew announced that the coalition would exclude the Move Forward Party, which had garnered the most votes in the election. The Move Forward Party had campaigned for radical changes and had pledged to introduce reforms related to the monarchy, a sensitive topic in Thailand due to strict lese majeste laws (Article 112).
The exclusion of the Move Forward Party from the alliance could ignite further protests among the progressive movement’s young supporters and potentially lead to mass demonstrations. A survey conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration revealed that approximately 64% of 1,310 respondents disagreed with the idea of the Pheu Thai party forming a “special government” with military-backed rivals.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s return introduces an additional layer of uncertainty into Thailand’s already tumultuous political climate. A telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin initially rose to power in 2001 with a landslide election victory. His policies aimed at improving the lives of rural Thais, including affordable medical care, debt relief, and educational access, endeared him to the country’s majority population. However, his populist approach and conflict with the nation’s elites and conservatives led to his eventual ousting in 2006.
Despite his absence, Thaksin has remained influential in Thai politics. Until this year, parties affiliated with Thaksin had consistently secured the most seats in elections since 2001 but struggled to maintain power due to military interventions. Thaksin’s return has raised speculation that he may have negotiated a deal with Thai authorities, potentially involving a reduced prison sentence or leniency.
In the politically charged atmosphere of Thailand, Thaksin’s return has introduced new variables, making the nation’s future direction even more uncertain.