To Thais, Thaksin Shinawatra is a lot of things: a businessman, a populist politician, and a controversial fugitive. But even from his refuge nearly 5,000 km away—the 62-year-old is currently living in Dubai to evade a two-year conflict-of-interest jail sentence—Thailand’s former prime minister has never strayed far from the country’s political hubbub. Now his spectre has again incensed Thailand’s opposition parties, following reports in the English-language Bangkok Post that he would be granted a pardon.
Royal pardons are granted annually in Thailand on Dec. 5, to celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday. If the king approves the decree, the Bangkok Post reported, Thaksin would be allowed to return home and forego the jail sentence handed to him in 2008. But the ex-prime minister remains a divisive figure. Born in the northern Chiang Mai province, Thaksin was educated in the U.S. before returning to Thailand in the 1980s to build the telecommunications conglomerate Shin Corp. He entered politics in 1994, leading the populist Thai Rak Thai party to a 2001 record majority win. In a country accustomed to coups and dictatorships, he was the first prime minister to head an elected government through a full term of office, and gained popularity amongst Thailand’s rural poor for his investments in infrastructure and universal health care.
But his tenure was marred by civil unrest and allegations of corruption, tax evasion and conflict of interest, and Thaksin was overthrown by the military in a 2006 coup. Although his Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded in 2009, he still wields authority in the governing Pheu Thai Party: his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected Thailand’s prime minister in July.
Reports of a possible pardon have already sparked street action by both his opponents and supporters. But back in Dubai—he splits his time between there and London—Thaksin isn’t holding his breath. In an open letter, he wrote: “I support all measures that will lead to national reconciliation and do not want to see any attempt that will sour the atmosphere. I will be patient for the sake of the people.”