For some, he is the hero of Thailand’s underpriviledged; for others, he is simply a businessman trying to grab power at any price: Even in exile, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra continues to be one of South East Asia’s most controversial figures.
In 2006, he was ousted by a military coup and fled the country. He returned for a corruption-trial, but escaped before he was convicted in absence. He now resides in Dubai, but continues to be an influencial player, pulling the strings behind the scenes by probably showering the opposition movement with money.
But his star seems to sink: Not being able to return to his home country, he has to look on as the red-shirt opposition is divided about how to treat him. Some say, he might be the only one powerful enough to keep the pro-monarchy-establishement (and the military generals who support it) at bay; others see the movement’s only chance in getting rid of Mr. Thaksin as its leading figure.
But it does not look like there is somebody influential, rich and charismatic enough to run the Red’s show. In the military, his supporters have recently been sidelined by the royalists who seem to be back in complete control (if they ever lost it, as far as the military is concerned). There has been chatter about Mr. Thaksin negotiating behind the scenes with the royalists to be allowed back into the country; this would only happen under the precondition of him staying out of politics (or, vice versa, him keeping his assets would only be allowed under the precondition of him staying out of the country).
Critics note that Mr. Thaksin would not mean hope for democracy, but only a different kind of evil than the current government, anyway. During his time in office, he was an outspoken enemy of free press, his government was known as much for cronyism as its predecessors and successors were. Mr. Thaksin recently declined to settle in Cambodia, which is currently in a diplomatic hassle with Thailand over its border region.
He and all Thais will look at how the health condition of King Bhumibol Adulyadej develops, who has been in hospital since mid of September. There had been talk of the health condition of the 81-year-old deteriorating, the first photos after his hospitalization show him beleaguered. His death would certainly reshuffle everything in a country where Bhumibol is seen as the highest moral authority, a semi-god highly respected among everyone. His possible successor, crown-prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (who spends a lot of time to live in Germany, by the way) does not look to be up to the job, but the military might back him if they are granted enough power in the future.
Meanwhile, Mr. Thaksin will await his trial abroad and anxiously trying to figure out how much influence he still has among his movement and the political leadership of his party. The royalist movement still fears his popularity, and you can never count Mr. Thaksin out. But the longer he is sidelined, the more it becomes likely Thailand’s political game continues without him.