Thaksin returns to Thailand after 15 years of self-exile, hours before Parliament decision on premiership

Thousands of supporters, mostly older people, flanked the streets leading up to the airport terminal.

Tan Tam Mei

Tan Tam Mei

The Straits Times


Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand on Aug 22, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS/THE STRAITS TIMES

August 22, 2023

BANGKOK – Former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra returned home on Tuesday marking the end of 15 years of self-imposed exile overseas.

The 74-year-old’s arrival comes at an unsettled period in Thai politics after parties, including the Pheu Thai Party which he backs, have jostled for over three months since the May 14 election, trying to establish the next government.

His private jet, which flew from Singapore, touched down at Don Mueang International Airport at 9am.

Thaksin emerged about 20 minutes later and first paid respects to a portrait of Thailand’s King set up in front of the terminal doors. He was also met by the police.

Thousands of supporters, mostly older people, flanked the streets leading up to the airport terminal. Some had arrived the night before and others in the wee hours on Tuesday.

Mr Damrong Khongpanya, 61, had made the eight-hour journey to the airport by car from the north-eastern province of Nong Khai, beginning on Monday and arriving in Bangkok at 4am on Tuesday.

Seated on make-shift mats by the road, the farmer expressed excitement at the former premier’s return.

“Even if I don’t get to see him in person, knowing that he is here is enough to make me happy,” he said.

Dressed in red – with many also wearing shirts with images of Thaksin and his sister, former premier Yingluck Shinawatra – several groups of supporters danced to songs in the north-eastern dialect and clutched bouquets of flowers they hope to give him.

“I love Thaksin!” shouted some supporters to foreign media who were taking photos of the crowds.

Thaksin’s arrival took place just hours before Parliament is expected to decide if it will support a nominee from Pheu Thai to become Thailand’s 30th premier.

This will be the first step in forming the next administration. Pheu Thai, which is the election runner-up with 141 MPs, has cobbled together an 11-party coalition with 314 MPs, and is seeking to form the next government with the pro-military parties it had earlier promised not to partner with.

It is set to nominate real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, 60 – one of its three prime minister candidates – for the vote later on Tuesday.

Thaksin, who is historically a polarising figure in politics, says his return to Thailand is unrelated to the prime minister vote.

Since his government was ousted in the 2006 military coup, Thaksin has voiced his intention to return multiple times.

But he had remained overseas since 2008, mostly based in Dubai, to avoid criminal charges in Thailand for corruption and abuse of power, which he says were politically motivated.

He faces about 10 years’ jail time on convictions related to three corruption cases.

Thaksin’s vows to come home had garnered more credence in the past months, with his daughter Ms Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, announcing specific times and dates for his return.

He had postponed his arrival twice in the last month amid uncertainties over the formation of the government, and many had been sceptical of his latest promise to return.

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