BANGKOK – Exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra celebrated Thailand's most important holiday in neighboring Cambodia this weekend, telling thousands of fervent supporters who crossed the border to meet him that he intends to return home soon on his own terms.
Thaksin, ousted by a 2006 military coup after being accused of abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy, led a song-filled rally to mark Songkran, the Thai New Year. Between appearances on stage, he worked the crowd in a manner recalling his past political campaigning.
Thaksin, 62, has been living overseas since jumping bail in 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term on a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated. Saturday's event, just a few hours' drive from northeastern Thailand, raises the question: Will he be celebrating the next Songkran at home?
Thaksin — by far Thailand's most divisive politician — has said in the last few days that his return will be "in the next three to four months," ''not so long," and when "everything is stable."
He sang several popular songs during his appearance Saturday, with lyrics changed to stress his homesickness or urge his supporters to support his younger sister Yingluck, the current prime minister. He added a strikingly off-key rendition of "My Way," which segued oddly into "Let It Be."
Thaksin also visited Laos, another neighbor, as part of his well-publicized Songkran tour. Since the beginning of the year, he has visited all four of Thailand's immediate neighbors — including Myanmar and Malaysia — suggesting, symbolically at least, that he is closing on his goal.
After fleeing Thailand, he based himself in Dubai and fostered a pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" movement, a counterweight to a "Yellow Shirt" royalist group whose 2006 street demonstrations paved the way for his ouster.
In 2009, he openly backed Red Shirt rioting against an anti-Thaksin government led by the Democrat Party, and in 2010 more discreetly encouraged vastly more disruptive Bangkok street demonstrations that resulted in the worst political violence in decades, including the deaths of 91 people over two months.
Thaksin's battles at the polls have been more fruitful. Pro-Thaksin parties won convincing victories in all four general elections since 2001 — five if an invalidated poll in 2006 is counted.
With his sister now prime minister and his allies holding a firm majority in Parliament, Thaksin's prospects appear good. But his 2006 ouster — after becoming the first prime minister ever to complete a four-year term, and then being re-elected by an unprecedented majority — is a reminder that he still has powerful enemies.
He has been accused of arrogance, failure to separate his business interests from affairs of state, and intolerance of criticism. But many believe he was ousted because his popularity was a threat to the traditional ruling groups — led by an army-palace axis — who feared he wanted to usurp their power. The monarchy was seen as particularly vulnerable because beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej is entering his twilight years.
Post-coup court rulings banning Thaksin's allies from politics and a constitutional revision to weaken political parties failed to dent his popularity.
"The harsh reality is that he wins elections every time," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. Instead, the prestige and influence of the army and the palace have declined, dragged down by an antidemocratic tinge.
This weekend's Songkran rally is a reminder of Thaksin's continued electoral potency and places more pressure on his opponents, Thitinan said.
Yingluck's government, meanwhile, is taking steps to get Thaksin off the judicial hook. It has proposed changes to the military-backed post-coup constitution along with legislation that would grant an amnesty to participants in the last six years' political turmoil.
Thaksin's supporters in Parliament "can do it, they have the votes to act," Thitinan said.
Opponents hope to delay Thaksin's return until they can forge a behind-the-scenes agreement to assuage their fears, Thitinan said. Few take seriously Thaksin's avowals that he does not want to return to office, and many expect he will seek revenge. Terms that would preserve the integrity of the army and the monarchy would be necessary for closing any such deal.
But some believe it may be too late.
"'Stopping him' is not a program. The opposition has only a negative agenda, and all of them, from the politicians to the very top, are seen as compromised," prominent Thailand analyst W. Scott Thompson of Tufts University in the United States wrote last week in Malaysia's New Straits Times newspaper.
"About the only good solution that is faintly possible is if the 'opposition' — from Democrat Party to the palace itself — realized its hopeless position and negotiated a long-term deal, in which they gave up much of their privilege, yielded full power to Thaksin's people, but with a backed-up and locked-in guarantee that he would not himself take the leadership, and that the palace was safe," Thompson said. "But this more and more sounds like a fairy tale."