Deposed Thai PM Thaksin out on bail after homecoming

His return a test of nations's stability, with critics warning populist billionaire's homecoming could plunge country into renewed crisis.

Shinawatra 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Shinawatra 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Deposed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned Thursday from 17 months in exile to face corruption charges, receiving a hero's welcome from supporters and vowing to restore his reputation following his ouster in a coup. But Thai authorities rapidly detained the 58-year-old billionaire politician and took him to a court appearance. There he was ordered to post $267,000 in bail pending a hearing on March 12, said court secretary Rakkiat Pattanapong. Thousands of supporters - many dancing, beating drums and singing - gathered at Suvarnabhumi International Airport for his arrival aboard a Thai Airways flight from Hong Kong. Thaksin was deposed in a September 2006 coup and lived in exile, based in London. He had expected to face arrest after arriving on charges of graft and abuse of power during his 2001-2006 time in office. His return was seen as a test of the country's political stability, with critics warning that the populist billionaire's homecoming could plunge the country into renewed crisis. Thaksin had tears in his eyes as he emerged to faced supporters. He knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, hands clasped together in the Thai greeting. Roga Kantapura, 33, who owns a car dealership in Bangkok, called Thaksin a "hero, a real hero" devoted to the poor and the country. "This guy could eat gold for dinner, diamonds for breakfast, he has so much money he doesn't care about money," he said. After posting bail, Thaksin proceeded to the Attorney General's Office where he paid $33,530 in bail on another set of charges. In that case, he and his wife are accused of concealing assets, said the office's spokesman Thanatip Moonpruk. Thaksin has said he is innocent of the charges against him, alleging that they were politically motivated. A hearing on whether Thaksin would be indicted was set for April 3. While he could face up to 15 years in prison, Thaksin's return was a triumphant re-entry to center stage of Thai politics despite 17 months in exile in which the country's most powerful institutions, including the military, tried to eradicate his legacy and keep him at bay. Although he has pledged to stay out of politics, his critics don't believe him and say he already has been exerting influence from behind the scenes. Just hours after arriving, Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee said that government would consult Thaksin, who is legally banned from all political activity for five years, for economic advice. "We can't appoint him to any official position, but we'll ask him for advice on the economy," Surapong told reporters. Police Lt. Gen. Prung Bunpadung said about 1,000 police were being deployed at the airport, along Thaksin's route of travel and places he is expected to visit during the day. Before boarding the plane in Hong Kong for the last leg of his journey home, Thaksin said, "I believe in the Thai justice system, especially the court system. Normally in justice systems everywhere, a person is innocent until proved guilty." He said that he was a "little bit" concerned about his security. But he added that there was little chance his return would spark violence. Thaksin repeated his pledge that he wouldn't seek to regain his political post. "I'm finished," he said. Thaksin returns home several weeks after a government sympathetic to him replaced a military-appointed interim regime. The People's Power Party, which is packed with Thaksin allies, won Dec. 23 general elections and now leads a six-party coalition government. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who heads PPP, won widespread support by campaigning as Thaksin's proxy and pledging to clear his name. Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, face corruption and conflict of interest charges in connection with her purchase of prime Bangkok real estate from a state agency in 2003, while he was prime minister. They are accused of concealing ownership of shares in SC Asset, the family's real estate holding company. Pojaman returned to Thailand in January and was released on bail pending trial. Thaksin, a former telecommunications magnate, also faces separate charges of concealing assets. Speaking to journalists in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Thaksin called the charges against him "unjust, unfair allegations" that were "cooked up by my political enemies." The forces that helped unseat Thaksin - the military, Bangkok's educated middle class and the country's elite, including people associated with the country's monarchy - tried to erase his political legacy. "Thaksin will plunge the country into a greater crisis that people will not be able to tolerate any longer," said former Bangkok governor and onetime Thaksin ally Chamlong Srimuang. ___ On the Net: Thaksin's Web site: