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Post-Thaksin, a calmer Thailand?

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, facing corruption charges, fled to England this week. His absence may hurt the pro-Thaksin ruling party but also ease political strife.

By Correspondent / August 13, 2008

Out of thailand: Thaksin Shinawatra (l.) and his family strolled through Guildford, England, Monday. This is the ex-prime minister's second time in exile in two years.

Alistair wilson/AP

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Beijing

Harried at home by legal investigations, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife got court permission to fly here last week for Friday's opening of the Beijing Olympics. The couple was due back in Bangkok Monday to appear in court, accused of defrauding the state in a land sale, one of a string of corruption cases facing them.

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They never made it.

Instead, Mr. Thaksin – a twice-elected leader once touted as a regional statesman – and his wife, Pojamarn Shinawatra, fled to London. It was their second time in exile since his removal by a military coup in 2006. In a defiant statement on Monday, he protested his family's innocence and accused his opponents of rigging the courts against him. Within hours, the Supreme Court had issued an arrest warrant for the couple.

Thaksin's latest exit may signal the endgame in a drawn-out political struggle that has divided Thailand and set back its democratic aspirations. In the short term, though, it could mean more turmoil for its ruling coalition that was elected last December on a pro-Thaksin ticket and faces possible impeachment over its handling of a dispute with Cambodia over a temple.

Few political observers will rule out an eventual return by Thaksin, a self-made millionaire whose tenacity and ambition have proved hard to contain. But the legal noose closing around his family, including a July 31 conviction of Ms. Pojamarn for tax evasion, will likely keep him at bay for now and could lead to a realignment of dueling political forces, say analysts.

"Without Thaksin, people can talk. I think there's a feeling that we should have a new beginning," says Kasit Piromya, a former ambassador to the US and an opposition supporter.

Thaksin loyalists look elsewhere

In recent months, thousands of street protesters have called for the downfall of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP). This opposition movement is popular with middle-class voters and royalist elites in Bangkok. But it has sparked angry reactions outside Bangkok from low-paid workers loyal to Thaksin, exposing a class divide in a society that prizes unity.

Protest leaders say they will continue their daily rallies, as Thaksin's exit doesn't mean the end of his influence. But his absence may sap their momentum.

Election-fraud investigations against the PPP and two other parties in the ruling coalition have already cast doubt over its staying power. By removing himself from the scene, Thaksin may trigger a stampede for the exits as lawmakers plot their future.

"You can see that within the political class, there are some true believers [in Thaksin]. But there's an awful lot of others who went with him because he was the man of the moment," says Chris Baker, a historian who co-wrote a critical Thaksin biography.

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