, BANGKOK, Nov 11 – Thailand’s ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra continues to fan the flames of political and social turmoil at home while he roams the world in exile to escape a prison term for corruption.
His latest move, provoking his foes in the Thai government by visiting neighbouring Cambodia this week to take up an economic advisory role, has provoked a diplomatic row between the bickering nations.
It caps a year of manoeuvres by the former policeman turned telecoms mogul turned politician aimed at returning home in triumph more than three years after he was toppled in a military coup.
But despite his enduring popularity in many parts of Thai society, analysts said he risks losing support if he throws in his lot with a country that Thailand has fought deadly skirmishes with in the past year.
"He is carrying on his crusade but using Thailand’s national dignity as a pawn and even his supporters might think twice about that," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Thaksin, 60, turned fugitive in August 2008 when he failed to return from the Olympic Games in Beijing ahead of court rulings that froze his assets and gave him a two-year jail term over the illegal sale of shares in his company.
He had only returned to Thailand a few months earlier after nearly two years abroad following the September 2006 coup.
Since last year, Thaksin has divorced his wife and collected new passports, including from Nicaragua and Montenegro, while globetrotting to pursue business interests including mines in Africa and consultancy roles.
Early this year the government of Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva unsuccessfully attempted to extradite Thaksin during a visit to Hong Kong. The former premier said he had been living mostly in Dubai.
But wherever he has roamed, Thaksin has never seemed far from Thailand’s political fray, rousing his "Red Shirt" protesters to stage huge protests and recently opening a Twitter account.
The Red Shirts forced the early closure of a meeting of regional leaders in April, leading to deadly riots in Bangkok streets that were only quelled with the threat of a military crackdown.
Demonstrations by his opponents have proven equally unruly, with the rival "Yellow Shirts" besieging Bangkok’s airports in November-December 2009 in a bid to force Thaksin’s allies from power.
The rival protests further highlighted the rifts between rich and poor in Thai society, upon which Thaksin partly capitalised to become the country’s only twice-elected premier.
His reputation as a corrupt authoritarian leader made him a hated figure among Thailand’s established elites but meant little to the majority of the rural poor, who continue to view him as a hero.
Thaksin was born on July 26, 1949, into one of the most prominent ethnic Chinese families in northern Chiang Mai province.
He joined the police force in 1973 but soon turned his hand to small business and then founded what would later become telecoms giant Shin Corp.
He sealed his reputation as a skilled businessman with the purchase of Manchester City football club, which he finally sold last year following the Thai courts’ seizure of his fortune.
In 1998 he moved into politics when he formed his own political party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), seducing voters with his business savvy and populist policies including cheap healthcare and microcredit schemes.
But his habit of installing relatives in key posts angered opponents, while a 2003 "war on drugs" outraged rights activists who said more than 2,200 people died in extrajudicial killings.
Thaksin’s personal profit in office gave his enemies a cause to rally around, leading to mass "Yellow Shirt" protests and the 2006 coup, but he continues to loom large over Thai society.