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Ex-PM Thaksin returns to Thailand after 15 years in exile

Thailand’s divisive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra returned to the kingdom Tuesday, after 15 years in exile and hours before parliament votes for a new prime minister.

The billionaire landed in a private jet at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport at 9 am (0200 GMT), to be greeted by hundreds of noisy “Red Shirt” supporters waving banners and singing songs.

Thaksin emerged briefly from the terminal building to bow and offer a floral garland at a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a mark of respect before waving to supporters.

The former Manchester City owner was led away by officials to face arrest on old criminal cases, in the latest act in the kingdom’s rolling political drama.

Lawmakers will vote in the afternoon to install business tycoon Srettha Thavisin as prime minister at the head of a coalition led by the Pheu Thai party — the latest incarnation of Thaksin’s political movement.

Earlier, a Facebook video posted by his sister Yingluck — like Thaksin, ousted from power by Thailand’s generals — showed the 74-year-old shaking hands with the crew as he boarded his jet in Singapore.”The day you are waiting for is finally come,” Yingluck wrote.

– Crimson supporters –

A day that began with a private jet for Thaksin will likely end in a prison cell — yet another dramatic shift in a switchback career that has included two election victories, defeat in a coup, criminal charges and long years of self-imposed exile.

Thaksin has said he is prepared to face justice in order to return to his homeland and see his grandchildren — though he has long maintained the criminal charges against him are politically motivated.

“I would like to request permission to return to live on Thai soil and share the air with my fellow Thai brothers and sisters,” he posted on Twitter, which has been rebranded as X, on Monday.

At the airport, hundreds of supporters from the “Red Shirt” movement loyal to Thaksin gathered singing songs and waving banners — most decked out in their usual crimson colours.

“I am a real Red Shirt — whenever they want our support, I will always be there for them,” Karuna Wantang, 70, a retired bureaucrat from Nongkai, in the country’s northeast, told AFP.

“I don’t only like him but I love him.”

Thaksin has been convicted in four criminal cases in his absence, although the statute of limitations has expired in one. The jail sentences against him total 10 years.

From the airport, he will be taken to the Supreme Court, issued with a jail warrant and put in detention.

Hundreds more Red Shirts lined the route he is expected to take.

It is unclear how long Thaksin might serve in jail. His associates hope he may be moved to house arrest after a brief incarceration, although there are no guarantees.

For all his long absence from the country, Thaksin remains Thailand’s most influential — and controversial — politician of modern times.

Loved by the rural poor for policies including cheap healthcare and the minimum wage, he is reviled by the pro-military and royalist elite who saw his rule as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to Thai social order.

Parties linked to Thaksin have dominated elections since 2001 — until this year, when the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats.

– PM vote –

But MFP’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat saw his bid to become PM dashed on the rocks of bitter opposition from conservative junta-appointed senators spooked by his determination to reform royal insult laws and tackle business monopolies.

While party patriarch Thaksin is being processed by the courts, Pheu Thai MPs will be preparing for the vote for a prime minister, expected around 3 pm.

The party is confident of getting Srettha approved in a joint vote by both houses, after gaining another 40 seats for its coalition on Monday with the addition of the army-linked Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).

It takes their controversial grouping — including military-backed United Thai Nation, the former party of 2014 coup-maker Prayut Chan-o-cha — to 314 lower house seats.

Following MFP’s exclusion from the first coalition, Pheu Thai’s deals with army-linked parties have enraged supporters who voted overwhelmingly against military-backed rule in May.