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BANGKOK – Since being ousted as Thailand's prime minister in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin Shinawatra has been a very busy man. The billionaire bought and sold England's Manchester City football club, acquired a titanium mine in Zimbabwe, started a lottery in Uganda and acquired a Nicaraguan passport. He met with Vladimir Putin and Nelson Mandela.
But most of all, opponents say, he has been busy running Thailand from afar, pressing to return to power through schemes that have widened the country's already dangerous political rifts and led to bloodshed on the streets.
His latest attempt to erase a 2008 corruption conviction and come home a free man was a gross miscalculation, igniting massive demonstrations in Bangkok against his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. His return now seems unlikely, but analysts say his wealth, powerful allies and a devoted following among the rural masses mean he will continue to exert significant influence.
And the 64-year-old Thaksin will probably remain the most divisive figure in modern Thai history, demonized by the middle class and urban elites as a cocky, corrupt upstart who challenged the traditional power structure, including the monarchy, and adored as a near-saint by have-nots for providing them with handouts and a sense of empowerment.
"He bought everything in this country. He would even buy your soul," businesswoman Chinda Dhamawong said as she marched down a Bangkok avenue with thousands screaming, "Thaksin out!"
Meanwhile, in Thaksin's prime stronghold, the impoverished northeast, residents of Kambon village credit him for bringing many benefits: electricity, cheap loans, virtually free medical care, good prices for their rice. "All this is because of Thaksin. This is why rural people want him back — why I want him back," said 61-year-old Thongchan Potaklang.
"It's always going to be about Thaksin in Thailand, but increasingly about more than Thaksin," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
A leading opposition lawmaker, Suthep Thaugsuban, resigned from Parliament to lead the massive protests. He wants to replace Yingluck with an unelected "people's council" that he says would remake Thailand's government to expunge Thaksin's influence. At least five people have been killed and nearly 300 injured since the demonstrations began last month, and protesters have temporarily occupied government ministries.
The self-exiled, globe-trotting Thaksin, based in a luxurious mansion in Dubai, has remained largely silent during the crisis. In a recent post on his Facebook page, Thaksin denied often-repeated claims that he has been disloyal to the royal family, headed by much-revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. "Thai politics is played out with cruelty and in cold blood. Please don't be cruel to me," Thaksin wrote.
Throughout his career, Thaksin has been a tenacious and sometimes ruthless fighter.
After obtaining a doctorate in criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas, and a stint on the police force, the descendant of Chinese immigrants used his connections to obtain a monopoly for what became the country's most successful mobile phone company.
In 2001, after a landslide victory, he became the first prime minister in Thailand's history to lead an elected government through a full term in office. Over the next five years, the economy boomed and so did the Shinawatra's family fortune, allegedly through massive corruption.
Thaksin's populist policies, CEO management style and willingness to roll up his sleeves and hit the campaign trail in remote areas gained him millions of supporters. But he also curbed press freedom, placed relatives and cronies in positions of power and battered the democratic system of checks and balances by removing those in the civil service perceived to be against him.
International human rights groups accuse him of ordering extrajudicial killings in his 2003 war on drugs, which left more than 2,200 people dead.
Today, Thaksin remains highly energetic and presumably still ambitious, having built up a second, wide-spanning business empire, which includes $30 million invested in African mining ventures. He bought Manchester City in 2007 and sold it the following year. He has served as an economic adviser to the Cambodian and other governments and launched a popular "Go Lotto" in Uganda. In Montenegro, he purchased a boutique hotel.
"I'm hyperactive. I cannot sit," he said in a 2011 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Yingluck recently told reporters that her brother no longer wants to be involved in politics. But both siblings have said that before, even as Thaksin openly called in to offer advice to his followers in the ruling Pheu Thai Party and summoned Cabinet ministers for meetings abroad.
"I am the one who thinks ... Pheu Thai acts," he said in an interview with Forbes magazine last year, repeating the slogan the party used on its way to a landslide victory in 2011.
The conflict is only the latest chapter in Thailand's grappling with how to evolve into a true democracy, one going back to the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Thaksin proved a catalyst to awaken the long-ignored voices in the countryside who propelled him to electoral victories and allowed him to challenge the long-entrenched, conservative order.
His enemies accuse him and his supporters of corruption and abuse of power, though both have been endemic in Thai politics for generations. Some analysts, including Thitinan, say the real goal of Suthep and the forces behind him is to ensure that Thaksin has no control over the crucial transition period when the 86-year-old king passes from the scene.
Bhumibol is a constitutional monarch but he and the monarchy remain extremely influential in Thailand. Thaksin is accused of disrespect in part because of allegations that he has tried to curry favor with the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.
"I think the anti-government protesters do not want to see Thaksin's shadows presiding over the succession period," Thitinan said.
Thaksin left Thailand in 2008, before he was sentenced to two years in jail for abusing his power to help his wife buy public land at an auction. He says the conviction and other criminal charges against him are politically motivated.
This fall, the Yingluck government attempted to ram through Parliament an amnesty bill that would have pardoned Thaksin. It also would have pardoned leaders of the former anti-Thaksin government, including Suthep, who in 2010 ordered troops to clear pro-Thaksin demonstrators known as Red Shirts from Bangkok's commercial district. Some 90 Red Shirts and others were killed in two months of street battles.
The heavy-handed gambit failed. Even the Red Shirt leadership opposed it, and it sparked the recent massive protests, even after the Senate rejected the bill and Yingluck promised it would not be revived.
Yingluck has dissolved the government and announced new elections, but that also is not enough for Suthep and the protesters behind him. Suthep proposes an unelected people's council to run the government while a new constitution is drafted. Many view his plan as a throwback to eras of authoritarian, often army-backed rule, and the Red Shirts are certain to rally to Thaksin's side if Suthep succeeds.
Some analysts say that even if Thaksin's supporters remain in power, recent events probably have narrowed his foreseeable options for returning to just two: a royal pardon, seen as unlikely, or going to jail.
"Whether he has learned a hard lesson, we don't know," says Puangthong Pawakapan, another political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
His setbacks do not mean he is politically weak. He still commands a war chest that is vital in the country's money-fueled politics. Forbes magazine recently estimated the Shinawatra family wealth at $1.7 billion, making them the 10th-richest in Thailand.
"I expect Thaksin will remain a major player in Thai politics for years to come, but I do not believe he will return to Thailand in the foreseeable future," says Benjamin Zawacki, a Southeast Asia expert at the International Commission of Jurists. "Thaksin's confidence in the legitimacy of his sister and the right of his party to erase his criminal record will only rise."
AP writer Tim Sullivan contributed to this report from Kambon, Thailand.