6 June 2024

Fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has endured a painful dilemma for the past 15 years – whether or not to return to Thailand and face jail terms imposed during his absence.

While the statute of limitations has expired on one of his sentences, three other final verdicts against him carry accumulated penalties of 10 years in prison.

Thaksin, 74, began his tenure as prime minister in February 2001 and served until September 2006, when he was ousted in a military coup. He currently lives in self-imposed exile after fleeing Thailand in August 2008, avoiding criminal cases stemming from his time in power.

After years of repeatedly declaring his imminent return, it appears Thaksin is actually set to end his 15-year absence from Thailand this month. His daughter Paetongtarn, one of Pheu Thai Party’s three prime ministerial candidates, announced on his birthday on July 26 that Thaksin would fly back to Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport on August 10.

However, political whistleblower Chuwit Kamolvisit on Friday claimed on Facebook that Thaksin had cancelled his plan to return. Chuwit’s claim was swiftly dismissed as “nonsense” by Paetongtarn, who insisted the August 10 return date was still in place.

Thaksin needs ‘three gems’

Political analysts, though, point to lingering uncertainties that could yet see Thaksin reconsider his homecoming plan.

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a lecturer at Burapha University’s Faculty of Political Science and Law, said the ex-PM needs to acquire three “gems” to assure him that his return would be a smart decision – legislative power, government power, and support from the masses.

The academic said Thaksin’s proxy Pheu Thai has earned him the first “gem” after managing to install Wan Muhamad Noor Matha from the Prachachat Party as speaker of the House of Representatives, who doubles as Parliament president. Prachachat is viewed as a close ally of Pheu Thai and is expected to join its potential coalition government.

Political veteran Wan Noor, 79, emerged as the compromise choice after the eight-party coalition’s two largest partners, Move Forward and Pheu Thai, clashed over who should take the House speaker’s seat.

However, Olarn said Pheu Thai is still struggling to secure the second and third “gems” for Thaksin, who is considered the party’s patriarch.

Pheu Thai seems reluctant to end its alliance with election-winner Move Forward, which stepped aside to allow its coalition partner the opportunity to form a new government after its leader Pita Limjaroenrat failed to secure the majority required in a parliamentary vote to become Thailand’s new prime minister.

Pheu Thai has been unable to coax support from major political parties outside the coalition, who object to Move Forward’s presence.

Olarn said this political deadlock will likely pave the way for Palang Pracharath leader General Prawit Wongsuwan and Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, both from the outgoing coalition government, to return to power.

“If Thaksin can get Pheu Thai to switch sides, he will have a better chance of winning the second gem [political power]. But there would be a high price to pay for this. Many party supporters would be unhappy at Pheu Thai forming a government with [Prawit],” said the analyst.

He added that any move by Pheu Thai to ally with conservative parties would meet with strong opposition from its red-shirt support base.

“The signals for Thaksin’s return have become so vague. The bargaining power has returned to the people in power. If Thaksin does not get all three gems, he is unlikely to come back,” Olarn said.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, agrees that Thaksin’s return is still dependent on the outcomes of fluid political developments.

The inside story of Bangkok Remand Prison as it prepares to welcome Thaksin

‘Lesser of two evils’

He said Thaksin’s desire to come back home was motivated by his advanced age after 15 years in self-exile. More significantly, the conservative elite has not opposed Thaksin’s return, as the ex-PM is their “best choice” at a time when the liberal Move Forward Party is enjoying surging popularity.

Olarn agrees that Thaksin and his proxy party are “the lesser of two evils” for the conservative establishment when compared to Move Forward, which has promised to oust the military from politics and change the lese majeste law that protects the monarchy from scrutiny and criticism.

“Move Forward is now considered a threat [for the conservative elites]. It is more terrifying than Pheu Thai. Forced to choose, [the elites] will definitely favour the ‘demon’ that will kill their enemy – not the one who will kill them,” the analyst said.

However, Yuthaporn also pointed to factors that may give Thaksin second thoughts about coming back. He still faces numerous legal cases, uncertainty over whether he will be granted a royal pardon, and concerns for his safety behind bars.

The analyst reckons that Thaksin’s return would be smoothed if Pheu Thai manages to lead the next government. But to do so it would have to ditch Move Forward from its coalition and join hands with its former political enemies – a move almost certain to trigger a backlash from Pheu Thai supporters, he said.

19 times in 15 years

Since fleeing the country in August 2008, Thaksin has announced his return at least 19 times. His latest announcement, made on July 26, his birthday, confirmed Paetongtarn’s Facebook post that he would land at Don Mueang on August 10.

Thaksin first mentioned he was planning to return in January 2009, just months after fleeing the country. He told a red-shirt rally by video-link that he would return to lead them for a “march on Bangkok” if security troops opened fire on them.

Three years later, he phoned a gathering of his red-shirt supporters in Surin province to declare he was about to “return home elegantly”.

Former red-shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan, once a Thaksin loyalist but now one of his fiercest critics, said recently that the ex-PM had often been duped by the conservative establishment into believing he could return without facing legal consequences.

After a long break, Thaksin delivered his next pledge to return via a media video call in January 2021. This time he said he wanted to come back to take care of his grandchildren.

Over the past three years, Thaksin announced his plans for repatriation no less than 17 times – four times in 2021, eight in 2022, and five this year. The announcements were mostly made during broadcasts of video chats with his Thailand-based trusted aides.

On March 24, Thaksin told Japanese media in an exclusive interview that he was ready to return and serve his prison term regardless of the May 14 general election result. However, many analysts dismissed the announcement as a ploy to woo votes for Pheu Thai.

On May 9, just days before the election, Thaksin asked for permission to “come home to raise my grandchildren within July, before my birthday”. But that again failed to materialize, with his return now rescheduled to August 10.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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