For Thailand's Thaksin, a warm yet wary welcome

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

Exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand Thursday for the first time since a September 2006 coup. The move was a show of strength, two months after his allies won parliamentary elections.

About 4,000 jubilant supporters greeted Mr. Thaksin at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, where he emotionally knelt down and touched his forehead to the ground with his hands pressed together in a Buddhist wai, a prayer-like gesture. The former prime minister waved to the crowd before heading to the Supreme Court, which immediately granted him bail on two corruption charges, on the condition that he ask for permission before leaving the country.

"I left Thailand as a prime minister, but on my return, I am a suspect," Thaksin told reporters at a press conference later in the day.

"I want to prove myself and reclaim my reputation, which was destroyed in an unjustified and unfair manner," he added, vowing to stay away from politics.

The former leader,who had been splitting his time between London and Hong Kong, returns to a country still deeply polarized between the rural poor, who still see him as their champion, and Bangkok's richer citizens, who called for his ouster.

Though the victory of the pro-Thaksin People Power Party in December strengthened Thaksin's hand against the royalist generals who ousted him, analysts say he must not be seen as meddling with the judicial process and provoke more conflict.

"Within parliament, there will be stability, as it's dominated by the PPP, but outside, the threat of confrontation between anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin groups will linger for the next few years," says Somchai Pakpatwiwat, a professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "Tensions could be reduced if Thaksin appears to be submitting to the rule of law, but if he interferes with the courts, then trouble could escalate."

Though the generals leveled a slew of corruption allegations against him, evidence has been hard to come by. Thaksin was served arrest warrants for two cases. In one, he is alleged to have brokered a land deal for his wife at a reduced price; the other involves concealing assets in a firm listed on the Thai stock exchange.

Army-appointed investigators still plan to bring a number of other cases against the billionaire Thaksin, including several that claim he abused his power to enrich Shin Corp., the telecommunications firm upon which he built his fortune. In January 2006, Mr Thaksin's family sold the company to Singapore's Temasek Holdings for about $2 billion in a tax-free deal, sparking massive street protests that prompted him to call an early election a month later.

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.

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."

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