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For Thailand's Thaksin, a warm yet wary welcome

The ousted Thai prime minister, who returned Thursday, faces corruption charges and a divided nation.

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Opposition parties boycotted the ensuing election in April 2006, and a court later voided the results. Tensions between Thaksin's government and the royalist elite escalated over the next few months, culminating in a September 2006 putsch just before Thaksin was scheduled to address the United Nations in New York.

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Thaksin's opponents decried his authoritarian tendencies, claiming he dismantled constitutional checks and balances and used his position to grow his personal fortune. His backers say he never broke the law but implemented policies to help Thailand's poor, such as cheap healthcare, village loans, and agricultural price supports.

"Thai people have been waiting for Thaksin to come back for a long time," says Wanchai Suradet, who held a rose as he stood among a vivacious crowd that had gathered to welcome Thaksin. "[He] solved the problems of Thailand, boosting the economy and giving upcountry people a better life. He was the best prime minister my generation has seen."

Although the generals transferred power peacefully to the pro-Thaksin PPP, bureaucrats and judges who oppose Thaksin could still take action against him if he is seen as stepping out of line. Thaksin could face up to 15 years in jail and lose his windfall from the Shin sale if the attorney general presses additional charges.

Many legal experts believe the cases against Thaksin are political and their outcome depends on how he behaves going forward. Analysts expect him to be punished in some way to appease his opponents, but the charges are likely to be watered down if he steers clear of politics as promised and reaffirms his loyalty to influential King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

"In this country everything happens in negotiations," says Kanin Boonsuwan, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's law school. "If Thaksin insists on winning the war and wants everything, he will lose everything."

While Thaksin has vowed to leave politics, he is widely believed to be pulling strings behind the scenes. New Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has called himself Thaksin's nominee and has worked to restore his populist policies.

Thaksin is banned from politics for five years, after a junta-appointed court last year dissolved the party he founded. More allegations of fraud in last December's poll could lead to PPP's dissolution, but analysts say that's unlikely.

"Dissolving PPP would create an enormous political crisis," says Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "That would mean the coup group is really committing themselves to long-term authoritarian rule, and I'm not sure the public would support that."