BANGKOK (AFP): Thailand’s divisive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra was jailed Tuesday as he returned to the kingdom after 15 years in exile, hours before parliament votes to install his party’s candidate as the new prime minister.
The billionaire landed in a private jet at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport at 9 am (0200 GMT), to be greeted by hundreds of noisy “Red Shirt” supporters waving banners and singing songs.
Thaksin emerged briefly from the terminal building to bow and offer a floral garland at a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a mark of respect before waving to supporters.
More Red Shirts lined the streets as the former Manchester City owner was taken to the Supreme Court.
There, he was ordered to serve eight years for three convictions passed in his absence — one linked to his former Shin Corp. company, another linked to a bank loan, and a lottery case.
His return came on the day parliament is expected to install business tycoon Srettha Thavisin as prime minister at the head of a coalition led by the Pheu Thai party — the latest incarnation of Thaksin’s political movement.
Thaksin, 74, was convicted in four cases in his absence, although the statute of limitations has expired in one.
Even after the court ruling, it is unclear how long Thaksin will stay in jail.
The timing of his return, as his party assumes power, has led many to speculate that a backroom deal has been done to allow him leniency.
“Welcome back to Thailand daddy. My father has now arrived in Thailand safely and has entered the legal process,” his daughter Paetongtarn wrote on Instagram, with a photo of Thaksin with his three children and seven grandchildren in the airport’s VIP lounge.
Thaksin began the day boarding a private jet in Singapore but he will end it in a Bangkok prison cell — yet another dramatic shift in a switchback career that has included two election victories, defeat in a coup, criminal charges and long years of self-imposed exile.
Thaksin said he was willing to face justice in order to return home and see his grandchildren — though he has long maintained the criminal charges against him are politically motivated.
“I would like to request permission to return to live on Thai soil and share the air with my fellow Thai brothers and sisters,” he posted Monday on Twitter, which has been rebranded as X.
For all his long absence from the country, Thaksin remains Thailand’s most influential — and controversial — politician of modern times.
Loved by the rural poor for policies including cheap health care and the minimum wage, he is reviled by the pro-military and royalist elite who saw his rule as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to Thai social order.
Parties linked to Thaksin have dominated elections since 2001 — until this year, when the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats.
Hundreds of Red Shirts waited through the night at the airport to welcome him with songs and banners — most decked out in their usual crimson colors.
“I am a real Red Shirt — whenever they want our support, I will always be there for them,” Karuna Wantang, 70, a retired bureaucrat from Nongkai, in the country’s northeast, told AFP.
“I don’t only like him but I love him.”
While Thaksin was being processed by the courts, his party formally nominated Srettha as its PM candidate in parliament, where a confirmation vote will be held around 3 pm.
Pheu Thai was beaten into second place in May’s polls by the progressive MFP.
But MFP’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat saw his bid to become PM dashed on the rocks of bitter opposition from conservative junta-appointed senators spooked by his determination to reform royal insult laws and tackle business monopolies.
Pheu Thai is confident of getting Srettha approved in a joint vote by both houses, after gaining another 40 seats for its coalition on Monday with the addition of the army-linked Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
It takes their controversial grouping — including military-backed United Thai Nation, the former party of 2014 coup-maker Prayut Chan-o-cha — to 314 lower house seats.
Following MFP’s exclusion from the first coalition, Pheu Thai’s deals with army-linked parties have enraged some supporters who voted overwhelmingly against military-backed rule in May.