Souvenir fans illustrated with Thaksin Shinawatra's face, were on sale during a nine-week, pro-Thaksin insurrection in the heart of Bangkok in 2010.  More than 90 people died -- mostly civilians -- battling the military which eventually cleared their bamboo and barbed wire barricades. Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich       

BANGKOK, Thailand -- After 15 years as an international fugitive ousted in a coup, homesick billionaire ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned on August 22, allowing the Supreme Court to sentence him to eight years for corruption and send him under heavy security to Bangkok's grim Remand Prison.

Hours later, in a backroom choreographed arrangement which is still playing out, Parliament ended a three-month deadlock and elected the candidate of Mr. Thaksin's extended party to be prime minister, politically inexperienced real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, 60.

Mr. Thaksin's spectacular return may have been in expectation that Mr. Srettha will somehow grant him leniency.

Mr. Srettha, relatively unknown to the public, said he will "improve the living conditions of all Thai people."

The prime minister-elect's name needs the king's endorsement before he can take over.

Mr. Srettha secured the prime ministry only by including, in his 11-party coalition, two political parties -- the United Thai and Palang Pracharath -- linked to the most recent 2014 coup.

United Thai was built by outgoing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who was army chief when he ousted Mr. Thaksin's elected sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from the prime ministry in 2014.

Palang Pracharath is led by Mr. Prayuth's former Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon who joined his junta.

Seemingly delighted that the two hardened military leaders' parties are in the coalition, bringing some of the outgoing government's top officials with them, Parliament's House and Senate enthusiastically voted 482 for Mr. Srettha, with 164 against, and 81 abstentions.  He needed only 376.

Mr. Srettha and his Pheu Thai (For Thais) party was criticized by many as betraying the pro-democracy struggle against military domination by including their parties in the government.

"This is a gathering of traditional elites -- the original political elite and the economic elite -- in a passive revolution to maintain their status and power and undermine...the new power that was forming and challenging them," Progressive Movement's Piyabutr Saengkanokkul wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

"In the 1970s and 1990s they had done it before," Mr. Piyabutr said, apparently referring to military-dominated regimes during those decades.

Mr. Srettha meanwhile brings his hard market, business experience to his prime ministry, in a country seeking international investment, modernization, advanced technology including A.I., and ways to attract more tourists and buyers of agricultural and other goods.

Mr. Srettha went to high school in the U.S. and received a Bachelor's in economics from the University of Massachusetts, and an MBA from Claremont Graduate University in California.

He became an assistant product manager of Procter & Gamble's Thailand company. 

In 1990, Mr. Srettha and his Chinese-Thai relatives invested in real estate, and he eventually became CEO of a multi-million dollar company, Sansiri, which develops luxury property.

Those U.S. and Chinese links are expected to influence Mr. Srettha while he tries to balance relations with both superpowers to fill Thailand's military, financial, and other needs.

Mr. Srettha has had a long, close relation with Mr. Thaksin and others in the Shinawatra family.

His loyalty resulted backfired when the junta, installed by the 2014 putsch, summoned Mr. Srettha and others to undergo "attitude adjustment" re-education sessions.

Those sessions usually involved keeping a person at an army camp, sometimes for several days, and giving them a do-it-or-else ultimatum not to publicly oppose the coup.

Mr. Thaksin's voluntary return meanwhile brought a fresh burst of threats and promises by his opponents and supporters, indicating Thailand's long-running political hysteria about Mr. Thaksin is being rekindled.

If Mr. Thaksin is let out of prison soon, the Shinawatra family will have emerged victorious in their 21st century battle against the military and others who opposed him.

Police and prison officials said Mr. Thaksin, 74, would be treated the same as other inmates, including special conditions for those over 70 years old.

After Mr. Thaksin arrived at the prison, authorities gave him a standard white prison uniform, and locked him in a private room on the medical ward.

Hours later, he was transferred to a better equipped police hospital because doctors said he suffers heart, lung, and other medical problems.

Mr. Thaksin's 2001 landslide election sparked Thailand's current political crisis when his populist policies, inexpensive health care, scholarships, and other assistance impressed rural and neglected Thais who perceived him as their savior.

That alarmed royalists, the conservative elite, and the U.S.-trained military which has led this Southeast Asian nation through a dozen coups and military regimes and demanded a dominant role in civilian administrations.

They portrayed Mr. Thaksin as an alleged greedhead, scarfing up whatever he and his family and cronies could lift while using his popularity as a shield.

After falling in the 2006 coup, Mr. Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008 when criminal cases, which he claimed were politically motivated, began piling up against him.

Courts had convicted Mr. Thaksin of four separate financial crimes, but the statute of limitations expired on one case by the time he returned on August 22 -- his first time in Thailand in 15 years of self-exile.

Based mostly in Dubai, he used internet and private meetings to lead his supporters in Thailand through elections, a bloody insurrection, party name changes, and a difficult come-back campaign.

Hundreds of supporters greeted his private jet which arrived in Bangkok from Singapore.

Mr. Thaksin's fugitive sister Yingluck, who is dodging separate financial convictions, tearfully hugged Mr. Thaksin in Singapore in a farewell embrace before posting the video clip online.

Ms. Yingluck apparently did not secure a deal for her to return without imprisonment.

"For the past 17 years, you felt isolated, lonely, troubled and missing home but you persevered," Ms. Yingluck wrote to him and posted online, referring to the 2016 coup.

"I will be strong and persevere. I will look after myself even in a foreign land alone," she said referring to her five-star international self-exile.

Thailand was mired in a paralyzing standoff after a national election in May resulted in a surprise victory for progressive upstart Pita Limjaroenrat to become the top candidate for the prime ministry.

Mr. Pita's Move Foward Party and his eight-member civilian coalition in Parliament's elected House however was not enough to overcome the military-appointed Senate which repeatedly crushed his attempt to muster their support.

The Senate claimed Mr. Pita's campaign to weaken royal defamation laws was reason enough to stop him.

Mr. Pita also wanted to strip the military of its coup-granted monopoly of the Senate, cease their commercial businesses, end conscription, and examine officers' promotions.

As a result, the second-place winning Pheu Thai party exited Mr. Pita's coalition and created their own 11-party group with Mr. Srettha as their candidate.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at