Thaksin returns after 17 months in self-exile

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Bangkok, Feb 28: Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned here today after 17 months living abroad in self-exile to face corruption charges, adding to the political uncertainty gripping the nation despite the restoration of democracy.

Mr Thaksin knelt and kissed the ground on emerging from Bangkok"s Suvarnabhumi International Airport at about 1000 hrs (local time) after arriving on a Thai Airways flight from Hong Kong. Hundreds of his supporters, including senior members of Thailand"s newly elected government, had gathered at the airport since early morning to greet Mr Thaksin. Mr Thaksin was taken to the Supreme Court from the airport, to answer the charges of misuse of public office for personal gain during his tenure as prime minister. He is expected to obtain bail and to seek permission to travel abroad for business purposes.

The former prime minister, ousted in a military coup in September 2006 following mass street protests against alleged corruption in his governance, said in media interviews a day before his arrival that he wants to live as an ordinary citizen in Thailand and stay away from politics.

Thailand"s most charismatic popular leader, Mr Thaksin is one of the 111 senior members of his former Thai Rak Thai party who have been banned from public life for five years by a judicial panel set up after the military takeover.

However, political observers have noted that Mr Thaksin"s presence would lead to a situation of two power centres in Bangkok as he is widely perceived to be the one calling the shots in the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

Mr Samak, a politician with a controversial right-wing past, and his ruling People Power Party (PPP) seem to be acting as a proxy for Mr Thaksin and his dissolved Thai Rak Thai party.

The PPP"s victory in the December 23 Parliament elections last year to restore democracy is credited to Mr Thaksin"s wide popularity among Thailand"s majority of rural people.

However, the disqualification by the national election commission of a leading PPP member this week has affected business confidence as it could lead to the dissolution of the PPP itself.

UNI

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