Profile: Thaksin Shinawatra

Thaksin Shinawatra
Image caption,Ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra has remained at the heart of Thailand’s political dramas

Thaksin Shinawatra, one of the most influential and polarising characters in Thai politics, has had his eight-year prison sentence reduced to one year.

The 74-year old former prime minister was greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters as his private jet touched down at Don Muaeng Airport last month, after 15 years of self-imposed exile.

He was taken to the Supreme Court, which had sentenced him based on convictions over corruption allegation charges that he says were politically motivated.

Thaksin wrote to King Vajiralongkorn to ask for a pardon shortly afterwards, but the royal announcement stated that he had now accepted his crime, and shown remorse.

Upon his return, he was taken to jail. However, he was almost immediately moved to the luxury wing of a state hospital, after complaining of heart problems. He is likely to stay there.

Despite his absence from Thailand, Thaksin is still a significant figure in the country’s politics.

The Pheu Thai party, now led by his youngest daughter Paetongtarn, 37 will likely play a leading role in the new ruling coalition.

A telecommunications billionaire, he was the first prime minister in Thailand’s history to lead an elected government through a full term in office.

He was enormously popular, especially among the rural poor, but also proved a divisive figure and was deeply unpopular among many of Bangkok’s rich elite.

After more than five years in power, he was ousted in a military coup in September 2006, accused of corruption and abuse of power.

Mr Thaksin has been in self-imposed exile since – mostly in London or Dubai.

He also owned a controlling stake in English Premier League football club Manchester City, which he was forced to sell off in 2008 after his assets were frozen by Thai authorities over allegations of corruption and conflict of interest.

In the 17 years since being unseated in a 2006 military coup, the country has seen 10 prime ministers. But Thaksin has remained very much at the heart of Thailand’s political dramas.

Former policeman

Born in 1949 in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin started his career as a police officer.

In 1973, he received a government scholarship to study for a masters degree in criminal justice in the United States.

When he returned he went into business, and during the late 1980s began building a successful telecommunications empire.

He founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party in 1998, and its rapid emergence transformed the country’s politics.

Thaksin swept into office in 2001, soundly defeating the old guard from the Democrat Party.

Poorer voters liked his offers of cheap medical care and debt relief, his nationalist platform and his contempt for the “Bangkok elite”.

But big business also liked him for his CEO-style of government and his “Thaksinomics” policies, which created a new boom in a country where the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s had begun.

Thaksin also won support for his handling of the tsunami relief effort after the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, which devastated parts of south-western Thailand.

Other things were not so easy. He had to face the fallout from his government’s suppression of news of an outbreak of bird flu, as well as criticism over the violent deaths of more than 2,500 people during a crackdown on drugs in 2003.

Thailand’s Corruption Commission found he had failed to declare all of his wealth, and he was also criticised over the government’s handling of the upsurge in violence in the largely Muslim south.

Yet each time he faced pressure, Thaksin appeared to ride out the storm, his backing among his key supporters – Thailand’s rural voters – apparently unscathed.

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