When Thaksin Shinawatra went into self-imposed exile in 2008 after he was charged with abuse of power following a military coup that overthrew his government, he issued a handwritten note.
“If I am fortunate enough,” wrote Thaksin. “I will return and die on Thai soil.”
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On Tuesday, the now 74-year-old finally returned to Thailand as Pheu Thai, the latest incarnation of his populist political movement, prepared for a vote in parliament on its candidate for prime minister.
Despite his long absence, Thaksin remains enormously influential in Thai politics.
“It closes a crucial chapter in Thailand’s politics,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said of Thaksin’s return. “He has been such a dominant force over the past two decades.”
A former policeman turned telecoms tycoon, Thaksin used his vast fortune to bankroll his first successful bid for political power in 2001, drawing support from the rural north and northeast with a raft of policies in areas such as healthcare and employment that promised to improve people’s lives and income.
As the leader of Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, he was the first Thai prime minister to complete a full term in office and was re-elected in a landslide in 2005.
Born into a prominent family of ethnic Chinese in July 1949 in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin started a small computer dealership in 1987, building it into the Shin Corporation, Thailand’s biggest telecommunications conglomerate.
He went into politics in the 1990s, and had stints as foreign minister and then deputy prime minister.
But after he was elected prime minister – Thaksin called himself Thailand’s first “CEO prime minister” – opposition grew among the urban middle class and traditional elite who feared he was nothing but a crony capitalist, and that Shin Corp was benefitting from his rule with government contracts. It didn’t help when he sold the publicly listed company for nearly $2bn to Singapore investment company Temasek, triggering accusations of insider trading.
Others were alarmed at his human rights abuses, amid a deepening conflict in Thailand’s mostly Muslim southern provinces and his self-styled war on drugs.
Amid accusations that he had insulted the revered monarchy, the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) took to the streets and in September 2006, the military seized power in a coup as Thaksin was due to address the United Nations in New York.
Two years later, Thailand’s supreme court found him guilty of violating conflict of interest laws while in office, and sentenced him in absentia to two years in prison.
Thaksin dismissed the charges as politically motivated and skipped bail to head overseas.
Even with Thaksin in exile – mostly in Dubai – he remained a formidable force in Thai politics, which has been locked in a renewed cycle of elections and coups since his removal.
“He’s the most divisive figure in the country,” a trusted Thaksin associate told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
“Nobody had ever stood up to a coup. Everyone (else) who was overthrown in a coup faded out and got out of politics. The guy is a fighter.”
Parties linked to Thaksin have remained popular over the past 15 years, and his younger sister Yingluck won elections for the Pheu Thai party in 2011 following a violent crackdown on pro-Thaksin “red shirt” protesters that left dozens dead. Yingluck was removed by the military in 2014 after sustained protests by the conservative “yellow shirts” – and followed her brother into exile.
Thaksin is seen by many as the true master of Pheu Thai, which came second in May’s general election and is set to lead the country’s next coalition government.
Thaksin regularly took to the Clubhouse social media platform under the moniker “Tony Woodsome” to address supporters in Thailand while he was in exile.
Over the past year, he has thrown his weight behind his daughter Paetongtarn as she took up the Pheu Thai mantle and led the party’s election campaign as one of its candidates for prime minister.
He is believed to be particularly close to the 37-year-old and has said his main motivation for returning to Thailand is to spend time with his grandchildren.
But first, he faces the prospect of prison after being convicted in his absence in several criminal cases and sentenced to eight years in jail.
Some officials have said he would be eligible for a pardon and could get better treatment as a result of his age.
Still, Pheu Thai did not win the May election.
Victory went to the progressive Move Forward party, which shocked the establishment after securing a wave of support, particularly from young people, on a platform of reform to the military and monarchy.
Thaksin may still be able to count on the rural heartlands but after 15 years away his influence is under pressure – not from the establishment but a younger generation who yearn for change.