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Richard Ehrlich: Ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Returns

Fugitive Ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Returns

By Richard S. Ehrlich

Bangkok, Thailand -- After orchestrating a stunning political victory over the military which ousted him in a 2006 coup, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned on Thursday (February 28) from 17 months in self-exile and surrendered to face corruption charges.

"I and my family have suffered from injustice," Mr. Thaksin told reporters after arriving in Bangkok.

Based mostly in London, Mr. Thaksin was an international fugitive from arrest warrants and tribunals, but a hero to Thais who overwhelmingly voted for him in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

After his flight from Hong Kong landed at Bangkok's corruption- plagued Suvarnabhumi International Airport -- one of several disgraced symbols of his 2001-2006 government -- Mr. Thaksin lovingly knelt on the ground.

Thousands of supporters thronged the airport to cheer his arrival in this Buddhist-majority country.

He was immediately whisked to the Supreme Court where a hearing was set for March 12, and he was freed on 250,000 U.S. dollars in bail.

He then posted 33,000 U.S. dollars in bail at the Attorney General's Office for another case.

The two separate cases against Mr. Thaksin, 58, also target his wife, Pojaman Shinawatra, and could result in 15 years imprisonment.

According to the Supreme Court case, his wife allegedly purchased government real estate in 2003 at a reduced rate while married to the prime minister.

The Department of Special Investigation case meanwhile focuses on the couple's alleged ownership, in 2003, of shares in SC Asset, a real estate holding company.

Mr. Thaksin's dramatic return after being deposed in a bloodless coup on Sept. 19, 2006, follow the footsteps of his wife, who submitted to the courts on Jan. 8 to defend herself against corruption charges in the same two cases.

The political and financial behavior of the billionaire couple, and their three adult children, fueled divisions in this non-NATO U.S. ally.

But after the junta allowed a nationwide election on Dec. 23, Washington restored normal relations with the elected government, and ties remain strong.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who led his newly formed People Power Party (PPP) to victory, is a close confidant of Mr. Thaksin.

They share many of the same political allies and a base which includes a majority of this Southeast Asian nation's rural poor, who favored Mr. Thaksin's cheap health care, easy loans, bloody "war on drugs," and other populous, authoritarian policies.

Mr. Samak and Mr. Thaksin are widely perceived as political Siamese twins, with Mr. Thaksin dominating the relationship with his vast fortune, monopolistic laissez faire strategies, pro-poor enticements, and political clout.

Mr. Samak, who leads a six-party coalition government, indicted he would not allow unfair persecution of Mr. Thaksin.

"He [Mr. Thaksin] comes back to prove his innocence, nothing else," Mr. Samak said on Tuesday (February 26).

Security for Mr. Thaksin's arrival was tight.

He was scheduled to spend Thursday night at a five-star hotel instead of his family residence in Bangkok.

"Given recent assassinations of people like Pakistan's former premier Benazir Bhutto, we should not take risks," Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said.

"Hero or Villain? Thaksin's Homecoming Today is a Loaded Gun," a Bangkok Post headline warned on Thursday (February 28).

"His repeated insistence that he will stay clear of politics has not calmed the nerves of those people who see him as a divisive figure," the English language daily said.

Though the December election replaced the junta, Thailand's new Army Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda helped other generals stage the coup.

The coup leaders claimed they ousted Mr. Thaksin because his allegedly corrupt administration was threatening to destabilize the country, and some military officers appeared to support the coup because they were being replaced by Mr. Thaksin's favorites.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup, stepped down in January expressing regret after his junta embarrassed Bangkok on the international stage, crippled Thailand's economy, frightened tourists away, and left the country divided.

"I didn't want the world community to condemn us as military dictators," a chastened Gen. Sonthi said in January.

"Sonthi ran up the white flag," said Chang Noi, a respected columnist for the Nation newspaper.

"The total failure of the coup regime to nail anyone for corruption, is an invitation to plunder with impunity," Chang Noi wrote.

Mr. Thaksin and Mr. Samak were expected to reverse the junta's five-year political banishment of 111 politicians -- including Mr. Thaksin -- which began when coup leaders dismantled Mr. Thaksin's popular Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party.

Both men promised not to seek revenge against the coup leaders, and instead restore reconciliation while the justice system deals with the corruption cases.

ENDS


************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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