Thai Tycoon Thaksin Tastes Freedom in Homeland, 15 Years after Fleeing

Thai News Pix/Tananchai Kaewsowattana via REUTERS
Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra leaves a police hospital after being granted parole, in Bangkok, Thailand, February 18, 2024.

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was released on parole on Sunday after six months in detention, his first day of freedom in his homeland 15 years after fleeing in the wake of his overthrow in a military coup.

Thailand’s best-known and most polarising premier, the influential Thaksin has loomed large over politics during the years spent mostly in self-imposed exile to dodge jail for abuse of power, charges he maintained were cooked up by the country’s old guard to keep him at bay.

The 74-year-old tycoon, whose family’s party is back in power, was granted parole despite having not spent a single night in prison for a sentence that had in August been commuted from eight years to one year by the country’s king.

Due to health reasons, Thaksin was incarcerated in a luxury wing of a hospital, from which he made an uncharacteristically low-key departure before dawn on Sunday, slipping out in a convoy of tinted-windowed vehicles that was chased by a phalanx of media that had gathered overnight.

Wearing a check shirt, protective mask and with his arm in a sling, Thaksin was pictured in the vehicle beside youngest daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, leader of the ruling Pheu Thai party, and arrived at his Bangkok residence 25 minutes later.

“Congratulations to PM Thaksin … I hope he will have good health and much happiness and warmth from his beloved family,” Pichai Naripthapan, a government adviser and former energy minister said in a post on X social media with an old photo of him together with Thaksin.

Thaksin has been at the heart of a two-decade power struggle between the Shinawatra family and its clique of capitalist upstarts, and a nexus of royalists, generals and old money families that have long wielded influence over Thai governments and institutions.


The founder of a seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut that has won five of the past six elections, Thaksin made a dramatic return by private jet in August to a rapturous welcome from supporters, before being escorted away by police who saluted him as he arrived.

His homecoming coincided with ally Srettha Thavisin being elected prime minister that same day by a parliament stacked with lawmakers loyal to the military, prompting speculation Thaksin had negotiated a deal with the powerful enemies who toppled three Shinawatra governments in eight years.

His allies have denied any such pact.

Speaking to media during a visit to the northeast on Sunday, Srettha said he was happy about Thaksin’s release, which was in accordance with the law. He said Thaksin is knowledgeable and was popular.

But his return and early release has been controversial, with widespread scepticism about the extent of his health problems and his relatively mild punishment.

“Very sick? Parole? What disease?” Senator Somchai Swangkarn posted on social media with pictures of Thaksin leaving hospital and the hashtag “RIP Thai justice”.

The opposition Move Forward Party said it was undeniable Thaksin had received unfair treatment in the past, but providing justice to him “should not be in a way that emphasises double standards … or gives certain individuals privileges above the law.”

The anti-Thaksin Network of Students and People for Reform of Thailand went further, issuing a stinging rebuke of the government and hospital doctors, adding “Today’s events should put you in jail instead of Thaksin.”

Thaksin’s release had long been anticipated and the focus will now shift to whether the tycoon stays true to his word on his retirement, and if he can resist the temptation to wield influence on a government now under the stewardship of his family and allies.

“He certainly will have some influence. Now, to what extent? He’s not calling the shots the same way he used to,” said political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak.

“Thaksin will be on a leash because the newly aligned centres of power, they don’t trust him,” he added. “I’m sure that the back channels will make it very clear that if he reneges on the deal, there’ll be trouble.”