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Since being ousted as Thailand’s prime minister in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin Shinawatra has been a very busy man.
The billionaire bought and sold England’s Manchester City football club, acquired a titanium mine in Zimbabwe, started a lottery in Uganda and acquired a Nicaraguan passport. He met with Vladimir Putin and recently deceased Nelson Mandela.
But most of all, opponents say, he has been busy running Thailand from afar, pressing to return to power through schemes that have widened the country’s already dangerous political rifts and led to bloodshed on the streets.
His latest attempt to erase a 2008 corruption conviction and come home a free man was a gross miscalculation, igniting massive demonstrations in Bangkok against his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
His return now seems unlikely, but analysts say his wealth, powerful allies and a devoted following among the rural masses mean he will continue to exert significant influence.
And the 64-year-old Thaksin will probably remain the most divisive figure in modern Thai history, demonized by the middle class and urban elites as a cocky, corrupt upstart who challenged the traditional power structure, including the monarchy, and adored as a near-saint by have-nots for providing them with handouts and a sense of empowerment.
Meanwhile, in Thaksin’s prime stronghold, the impoverished northeast, residents of Kambon village credit him for bringing many benefits: electricity, cheap loans, virtually free medical care, and good prices for their rice. “All this is because of Thaksin. This is why rural people want him back, why I want him back”, said 61-year-old Thongchan Potaklang.
“It’s always going to be about Thaksin in Thailand, but increasingly about more than Thaksin,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
A leading opposition lawmaker, Suthep Thaugsuban, resigned from Parliament to lead the massive protests. He wants to replace Yingluck with an unelected “people’s council” that he said would remake Thailand’s government to expunge Thaksin’s influence.
The self-exiled, globe-trotting Thaksin, based in a luxurious mansion in Dubai, has remained largely silent during the crisis. In a recent post on his Facebook page, Thaksin denied often-repeated claims that he has been disloyal to the royal family, headed by much-revered but ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. “Thai politics is played out with cruelty and in cold blood. Please don’t be cruel to me”, Thaksin wrote.
Throughout his career, Thaksin has been a tenacious and sometimes ruthless fighter.
After obtaining a doctorate in criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas, and a stint on the police force, the descendant of Chinese immigrants used his connections to obtain a monopoly for what became the country’s most successful mobile phone company.
In 2001, after a landslide victory, he became the first prime minister in Thailand’s history to lead an elected government through a full term in office. Over the next five years, the economy boomed and so did the Shinawatra’s family fortune, allegedly through massive corruption.
But he also curbed press freedom, placed relatives and cronies in positions of power and battered the democratic system of checks and balances by removing those in the civil service perceived to be against him.
International human rights groups accuse him of ordering extrajudicial killings in his 2003 war on drugs, which left more than 2 200 people dead.
Today, Thaksin remains highly energetic and presumably still ambitious, having built up a second, wide-spanning business empire, which includes $30m invested in African mining ventures. He bought Manchester City in 2007 and sold it the following year.
He has served as an economic adviser to the Cambodian and other governments and launched a popular “Go Lotto” in Uganda. In Montenegro, he purchased a boutique hotel.
“I’m hyperactive. I cannot sit,” he said in a 2011 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Yingluck recently told reporters that her brother no longer wants to be involved in politics. But both siblings have said that before, even as Thaksin openly called in to offer advice to his followers in the ruling Pheu Thai Party and summoned Cabinet ministers for meetings abroad.
“I am the one who thinks. Pheu Thai acts”, he said in an interview with Forbes magazine last year, repeating the slogan the party used on its way to a landslide victory in 2011