Thaksin seems in a blithe mood these days. Though overthrown in Thailand's first coup in 15 years, he is intent on showing the world that he's enjoying exile. He has reacquainted himself with the pleasures of golfat least until conditions in Beijing, where he spends much of his time, got so icy his bodyguard couldn't put the tee into the ground. Acknowledging that his suit was hanging a little loose over his frame, Thaksin explains: "I've lost weight because I have time to do yoga, not because I feel grievances. I'm very relaxed." Indeed, the former PM expresses gratitude toward the generals who removed him from power and formed the ruling Council for National Security (CNS). "Thanks to the CNS for this, so I can retire," says Thaksin, with a grin. "After being ousted, I had a very good excuse to quit politics."
Thaksin may claim to be basking in life après coup. But his mere shadoweven an ostensibly retired oneis enough to cause jitters among Thailand's ruling junta. Thaksin presided over a deeply divided nation. Even as the citified middle class rallied for months to dislodge him from office, rural masses clung to a leader whose populist policies were seen as evidence of his devotion to the poor. If general elections were held today, Thaksin might very well win, courtesy of a silent majority rising up from their paddies and mountain villages. Just ask rice farmer Mukda Phardthaisong, who lives in Nakhon Ratchasima, part of the country's impoverished northeast. "If Thaksin were to run again, I would want him to be our leader because he gave more attention to grassroots people than to the middle class or government officers," she says. "Poor people are not important for the new government." Little wonder that Thailand's unelected generals fear the specter of the exiled leader. "There is evidence that seems to indicate that he is not about to call it quits," says Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram, without elaborating what that evidence is. "We are concerned."
The generals are trying to inoculate themselves against the Thaksin effect. Last September's military takeover was initially greeted with little public disapprovaleven among Thai supporters of democracyyet the junta has repeatedly warned the local press not to report on Thaksin, lest the coverage inflame public sentiment. A recent CNN interview with the former PM was blocked from Thai airwaves. Nor are foreign governments exempt. When Thaksin met last month with Singapore's deputy Prime Minister, Thailand angrily canceled a set of diplomatic meetings between the two countries. A few days later, CNS leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin intimated that Singapore might be eavesdropping on Thailand's leaders through its ownership of Shin Corp., which runs a Thai mobile-phone operator. (Formerly controlled by Thaksin's family, Shin was sold last year to Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of the Singaporean government, for $1.9 billion.) "Thaksin makes the CNS very nervous," says Ukrist Pathmanand, associate director of the Institute of Asian Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who has co-written a book about the ousted leader. "I don't believe he will stay out of politics. I could see him returning when people begin to think that the leaders who followed him have failed. He could be seen as the best alternative to the CNS."
Indeed, the CNS, which says it overthrew Thaksin to restore national unity and prevent a violent showdown between his supporters and detractors, is looking less than bulletproof. Sonthi and CNS-appointed interim PM Surayud Chulanont have promised fresh elections by year's end. But just four months after the coup, local polls show that the Thai public is wearying of military rule. At the same time, financial missteps by the military-appointed Cabinet have spooked international investors, as did fatal bombings in Bangkok on New Year's Eve that the junta has yet to solve. Meanwhile, in the restive south, Muslim insurgents have ramped up their murderous campaign; on Monday, three Buddhists were gunned down. Thaksin says that if he were to eventually return home, he could help heal the nation. "If you want to have national reconciliation, it's like clapping hands," says Thaksin. "If you try to clap with one hand, and take another hand far away, is it possible? You have to bring that hand back. I have quit politics, don't worry, but I want to help with reconciliation."
That's a warm and fuzzy sentiment, yet Thaksin's own term of office was hardly without controversy. The conflict in the south escalated during Thaksin's tenure and was aggravated by his decision to unleash a heavy-handed military response with little attempt to win hearts and minds. Allegations of human-rights abuses, including the deaths of more than 2,000 people during three months of the 2003 war on drugs, made many wonder whether the former police lieutenant-colonel had taken the law into his own hands. The tax-free windfall from the sale of Shin Corp., which sparked the mass public protests in Bangkok against Thaksin, hardly burnished his cultivated image as a simple man of the people. And his tenure was plagued by accusations of graft. The CNS is currently investigating 52 cases of possible corruption or abuse of power during his time in office and has said it may bring charges by the end of February. Thaksin's old Thai Rak Thai party is also being probed for possible electoral fraud in the polls last April, which were eventually nullified. Even the ex-PM's showcase projectSuvarnabhumi Airport, which opened just nine days after Thaksin fell from powerhas been tainted by claims of a rush job and of corruption. Late last month, international inspectors refused to certify the airport as safe because of cracks in the taxiways. Resolving all these complex issues, the junta contends, won't be easy. "There certainly were abuses [during Thaksin's regime]," alleges Foreign Minister Nitya. "We are picking up the pieces ... but to get to the bottom of it all is really difficult."
For now, as the interim government stumbles along, Thaksin seems content to adopt the role of happy retiree. He talks of cadging cooking ingredients off Thai massage therapists working in his building in Beijing so he can whip up his favorite omelettes and spicy prawn soup. And then there's the long list of shops to visit and friends to catch up with, all over the world. "You know, right after the coup, I was in the U.S., and I met some friends who gave me some cheese," says Thaksin. "I told them: 'Don't worry, I can still smile without cheese.'" The jokes, told in the plush confines of Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, where Thaksin stayed back when he was Prime Minister, meet with appreciative chuckles from the assembled retinue of advisers, who still call him "Your Excellency." But for all of Thaksin's repeated protestations that he will bow out of politics, that his family needs him, that his Buddhist beliefs are propelling him to find an inner peace, the atmosphere in his fancy suite is one of expectation, not closure. Thaksin and Thailand are not done with each other yet.