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When Will Thaksin Return?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 17, 2012

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra greets the media upon his arrival at the Siem Reap International Airport in Cambodia, April 14, 2012. Thailand's fugitive former premier Thaksin took some small but symbolic steps towards the fringes of his homeland on Wednesday after five years in exile. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra greets the media upon his arrival at the Siem Reap International Airport in Cambodia, April 14, 2012. Thailand's fugitive former premier Thaksin took some small but symbolic steps towards the fringes of his homeland on Wednesday after five years in exile. (Samrang Pring/Courtesy Reuters)

A spate of articles over the past week has highlighted the growing possibility that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra will soon return to Thailand from exile. During a recent visit to Laos, just across the border from the Thai Northeast, Thaksin told supporters that he is going to return to Thailand within the next three or four months, in time for his birthday. As The Economist noted last week, his recent visit to Laos had all the trappings of a state visit, with high security, crowds of supporters, and the highest-level audiences with the Lao government. Thaksin has also increasingly dropped the façade that he is “retired” from politics, though he continues to insist that he is not interested in returning to the premiership. He told supporters in Laos that he had “chose[n]” his sister Yingluck to be prime minister, essentially confirming the idea that he manipulates the Puea Thai Party from abroad.

Thaksin also increasingly meets with Puea Thai members of parliament, and conducts the type of business that the government would handle, allegedly meeting with leaders of southern Thai insurgent groups in order to potentially negotiate a deal that would tamp down the insurgency. (Thaksin’s spokespeople deny that he met with insurgents, but previously he issued a non-denial denial, and the reporting on the meeting comes from some of the finest journalists in Thailand.) Supposedly, Thaksin will either seek a royal pardon (unlikely) or get back to Thailand through the new amnesty legislation or under a constitutional amendment (more likely).

That Thaksin would return at some point was almost assured, and certainly he must want to be home, though his life abroad is very luxurious. But since Thai politics has not moved on since the 2006 coup and 2010 killings, and in fact seems even more partisan and obstructionist than ever, Thaksin must realize that, in returning home, he is likely to only further fuel the warfare, and possibly lead to acts that might undermine or even end his sister’s government — which would be no victory for Thaksin’s working class and rural supporters. Thaksin hardly bears all of the blame for Thailand’s current mess, though he bears some. But at this point, remaining abroad might show that he, unlike his opponents, is willing to sacrifice greatly for some real reconciliation.

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