Former Thai prime minister returns to country after 15 years in self-imposed exile

Divisive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand on Tuesday after years of self-imposed exile as a party affiliated with him plans to start forming a new government.

Thaksin faces possible criminal penalties from his time before fleeing the country.

Thaksin, who once owned Man City, has said his decision to return has nothing to do with an expected vote in Parliament later on Tuesday on a candidate from the Pheu Thai party for prime minister. But many believe his arrival is connected to the party's pursuit of power.

Thaksin flew from Singapore in his private jet and landed at Don Mueang International Airport at roughly 9am local time. Thai broadcasters aired live footage of him walking out of the airport's private jet terminal with his three children including his youngest daughter, key Pheu Thai member Paetongtarn Shinawatra. His grandchildren were also seen.

After walking out, Thaksin placed a flower wreath and prostrated before a portrait of Thailand's king and queen at the gate of the terminal. He spent a moment greeting supporters and the media waiting in front of the terminal but did not speak.

Hundreds of his supporters gathered outside of the airport hours ahead of his arrival, donning red, a color long associated with Thaksin, and holding sign with welcoming messages. They showed their devotion to him with songs and chants, then raised raucous cheers when he appeared at the entrance.

"I feel fulfilled that I traveled here today to pick him up. If possible I want to hug him. Everyone has tears, tears coming out of their eyes," said Makawan Payakkae, a 43-year-old from Maha Sarakham province.

The 74-year-old billionaire promoted populist policies and used his telecommunications fortune to build his own Thai Rak Thai party and be elected prime minister in 2001 and easily reelected in 2005, before being ousted in a military coup in 2006 and fleeing into exile a few years later.

Paetongtarn posted family photos with Thaksin in the middle on Facebook with a message thanking people who went to the airport to welcome her father, saying "me and my family are very grateful."

Thaksin still holds a great deal of support in Thailand (Getty Images)
Thaksin still holds a great deal of support in Thailand (Getty Images)

His convoy first went to the Supreme Court, where a news release from the body said he would formally inform him of earlier convictions issued in absentia for which he was sentenced to a total of 10 years imprisonment. The convoy left the court an hour later and went to Bangkok's main prison. Thaksin was convicted in absentia for several criminal cases after he fled that he claimed were politically motivated.

Pheu Thai is the latest in a string of parties affiliated with Thaksin. The military coup that ousted him triggered years of upheaval and division that pitted a mostly poor, rural majority in the north that supports Thaksin against royalists, the military and their urban backers.

Less than a week before May elections, Thaksin announced he would like to return before his birthday in July, but the plan was repeatedly delayed, with he and Paetongtarn citing both post-election uncertainties and his health.

Pheu Thai came in second in the elections but took over leadership in forming a new government after the surprise winner, the progressive Move Forward Party, was repeatedly rejected by conservative senators appointed by a previous military government.

Thaksin was ousted while he was abroad in 2006. He came back briefly to Thailand in 2008 to face a court trial before fleeing the country. He has avoided returning over concerns he would not be treated fairly by the military-backed government and establishment that has long held a sharp animosity toward him.

He has remained active in Thai politics, however, often making video calls to rallies of his supporters and parties backed by him.