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How Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra went from prime minister to fugitive abroad and back home again

BANGKOK — BANGKOK (AP) — Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former prime minister of Thailand, made a dramatic return home after more than a decade of self-imposed exile.

He was detained in a hospital for six months and on Sunday, Thaksin was released on parole for corruption-related offenses.

Here’s a look at what may lie ahead for one of Southeast Asian most controversial politicians:

Thaksin Shinawatra, 74 , was twice elected prime minister, only to see his second term cut short by a military coup in 2006.

A former police official, Thaksin made fortune in telecommunications and used it to found his own Thai Rak Thai party in 1998. He promoted populist policies that appealed to lower income citizens, particularly in rural areas where most voters live. He was elected in a landslide victory in 2001, and reelected in 2005.

His supporters credited him for spreading the benefits of growth in a country with big gaps between rich and poor. He became a symbol of hope for policies benefiting the rural population that was mostly neglected by previous governments. The measures pushed by Thaksin included the universal health care — a major accomplishment — village development funds and support of rural industries and development.

His massive popularity and unprecedented electoral support had rocked the long established political order in Thailand. It earned Thaksin powerful enemies among the country’s conservative forces, including the army. They saw him as a threat to the monarchy, revered as the bedrock of Thai national identity.

But there were other red flags: he was intolerant of criticism, especially in mass media, and failed to distance his wide-ranging business interests from governance. He was accused of mishandling complaints of minority Muslims in Thailand’s southernmost provinces, prolonging the conflict there, while human rights groups blame his war on illegal drugs for more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings of suspected traffickers.

His ouster in the coup in 2006 sparked nearly two decades of deep political polarization that pitted his supporters, particularly the less well-off who benefited from his policies, against a range of opponents including members of the urban classes, fervent royalists and the army.

Thaksin has rejected legal charges against him, mostly corruption-related, as politically motivated.

He had been abroad when the army took power but returned in 2008, after a new friendly civilian administration briefly ruled Thailand. However, he skipped bail that same year just before he was sentenced in connection with a real estate deal. He fled abroad, splitting his time mostly between London and Dubai and attending to a variety of business interests. In 2007, he had purchased the Premier League football club Manchester City, but he sold it about a year later.

After his ouster, Thaksin remained a highly beloved figure to millions of voters who saw him as a symbol of a government that looked after their interests. Time and again, Thaksin-backed parties prevailed in national elections, but were unable to stay in office for long due to legal challenges — firmly aligned with the conservative establishment — and destabilizing street protests engineered by Thaksin’s die-hard foes.

Militant street action in 2010 by his supporters that virtually shut down central Bangkok for two months was suppressed by the army, with at least 90 people killed in the violence.

In 2011, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra led the Pheu Thai party to an landslide election victory. But her government then floated a proposal for a political amnesty that could allow Thaksin to escape imprisonment, triggering a series of protests that turned violent, leading to another coup in 2014 that installed a purely military government. It stayed in place until 2019.

Yingluck was slapped with multiple criminal charges, and also fled the country to escape prison.

Thaksin’s desire to return home seemed finally possible as Thais last year headed to a general election in which the Pheu Thai party had been considered the frontrunner.

However, it fell behind the more progressive Move Forward party, whose proposals to reform the monarchy and the military resonated with large numbers of voters who were disenchanted by the army-backed governments.

Move Forward’s victory had rattled Thailand’s conservative establishment, apparently driving them to favor reconciliation with their old enemy Thaksin and his political machine over what looked to be a more dangerous threat to their interests.

The result was a governing coalition between military-backed conservative parties and Pheu Thai. Thaksin’s dramatic return came on the day the Pheu Thai party won enough votes in Parliament to lead the government. The party, in return, softened its anti-military line and many reform plans it had promised during the campaign.

After returning to Bangkok in August last year, Thaksin was sent straight to prison to start serving his eight-year term. He was moved almost immediately to a hospital on grounds of ill health, and had his sentence commuted to a year by King Maha Vajiralongkorn. He remained in the hospital until he was paroled.

He emerged in public for the first time after six months, driven from the hospital to his residence in western Bangkok with a neck brace and an arm sling. Critics have charged that his abbreviated prison stay and relatively comfortable confinement in a hospital was a special privilege that reflected a deal he and his party made with their conservative foes.

It is widely speculated that after the release, Thaksin will resume political activities and wield commanding influence over the Pheu Thai party. His daughter Paetongtarn heads the party and is considered a future prospective prime minister.

Thaksin meanwhile has not yet cleared all legal hurdles. The Office of the Attorney General said it is still investigating a charge of royal defamation that were made against Thaksin almost nine years ago. It could land him up to 15 years in prison if he is ever convicted.

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