Ex-PM Thaksin returns to Thailand after 15 years of self-exile

Wilawan Watcharsakwej and Nontarat Phaicharoen
Ex-PM Thaksin returns to Thailand after 15 years of self-exile Former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, alongside his son, Panthongtae, and daughter, Paetongtarn, greets supporters after arriving at Mjets private terminal at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Aug. 22, 2023.
Thai News Pix/BenarNews

UPDATED at 10:14 a.m. EDT on 2023-08-22

Thailand’s billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was taken into custody shortly after arriving home Tuesday from 15 years of self-imposed exile, on the same day as a high stakes parliamentary vote for a new prime minister.

The 74-year-old fugitive flew on a private jet from Singapore and landed at Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok at about 9 a.m. 

After disembarking, he briefly greeted supporters outside the terminal alongside his daughter Paetongtarn, a leader of the Pheu Thai Party, before laying a flower wreath and prostrating in front of a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (Rama X) and Queen Suthida.

Police then took Thaksin to the Supreme Court where he was ordered to serve eight years for three crimes. The Department of Corrections said Tuesday afternoon that he had arrived at the Bangkok Remand Prison, north of the capital, and undergone a health check.

Thaksin, who is being held at a prison medical facility, is immediately eligible to seek a royal pardon, which can take up to two months to process after an application is made, said Sahakarn Petchnarin, deputy permanent secretary at the Department of Corrections. 

In the meantime, he is being treated as a vulnerable inmate due to his age and medical conditions, Sahakarn said, adding he would be monitored 24 hours a day.

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Thaksin Shinawatra kneels before a portrait of the king and queen at the Mjets private terminal at Don Mueang International Airport, Aug. 22, 2023. [Thai News Pix/BenarNews]   

Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006 and fled Thailand in 2008 to escape a prison term for charges that he maintains were politically motivated.

Even in exile, the telecoms tycoon remained an influential figure in Thailand. His populist economic policies as prime minister endeared him to the country’s poor, especially in the north and northeast. But his critics have accused him of deep corruption, anti-monarchism and dividing the nation. 

Earlier in the morning, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra posted a video on Facebook of Thaksin boarding a Gulfstream G650 to Bangkok.

“Finally the day has come ... I wish you good luck and a safe trip,” she wrote. 

Hundreds of journalists camped out at Don Mueang’s Mjets private terminal ahead of Thaksin’s arrival, while throngs of supporters dressed in red and waving flags waited nearby to get a glimpse of the former premier.

Student Anna Annanont, 17, said she was at the airport to show solidarity with all Thai “political prisoners” like Thaksin.

“I’m here because I want other people who have been affected to come back home, too,” said Anna, who is a member of the Bad Student group that challenges Thailand’s hierarchical school system.

Somporn Jaroenrak, a native of Pathum Thani to the north of Bangkok, said he was glad Thaksin was back on home soil. 

“It doesn’t matter which ‘uncles’ he sides with, it’s just important people have enough to eat,” the 62-year-old said, referring to the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai’s decision to ally with two political parties led by former army generals. “He has come back to help our nation.”

Supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra gather at a police security line as they wait to get a glimpse of the former leader at the Mjets private terminal at Don Mueang International Airport, Aug. 22, 2023. [Thai News Pix/BenarNews]

Thaksin has been jailed for approving a low-interest loan from the Export-Import Bank of Thailand to Myanmar’s government to buy telecommunications equipment from a company he controlled

He is also serving time for his involvement in a state lottery scheme, and concealing shares in his family business, SHIN Corp., from 2001-06, during which time the company benefited from various government concessions.

Thaksin’s return added drama to an already politically charged day in Thailand, as lawmakers were preparing to vote on the nomination of property tycoon Srettha Thavisin from the Pheu Thai Party for prime minister. Srettha received 482 votes – far more than the 375 needed from parliament members to be elected prime minister.

Pheu Thai, the populist vehicle of the Shinawatra family, is seeking to form a new government after the progressive Move Forward Party failed last month, following fierce opposition from Thailand’s conservative ruling elite.

The timing of Thaksin’s arrival and what backroom deal making laid the foundations for his return have added to months of political intrigue in Thailand, which has been under a caretaker government since a general election on May 14.

Paetongtarn said her father’s return had nothing to do with the parliamentary vote for prime minister.

This story has been updated to include details of Srettha Thavisin receiving 482 votes for prime minister. 


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