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Thailand's Ousted PM Returns to Cheers, Criminal Charges

Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in 2006, has returned to his country. Thousands gathered at the international airport in Bangkok to greet him, but he has to deal with criminal charges dating from his time in office, and analysts say his return ushers in a new period of political instability in the kingdom. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.

Thousands cheered at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport as Thaksin Shinawatra returned after 17 months of self-imposed exile. The former leader, who was ousted in a bloodless military coup in September 2006, knelt and put his head to the ground.

He retains a strong following here thanks to his policies that emphasized health care and other benefits for the poor. One supporter, wearing a T-shirt that read "Missing Thaksin" and holding a bunch of red roses, was among the thousands waiting for him at the airport.

She says Thais love Thaksin and need him. She says Thailand depends on him for its prosperity, and she hopes Buddha will protect him.

But the welcome is not unanimous. Mr. Thaksin comes back to face corruption charges and the continuing ire of the military, the urban elite, and others who supported his ouster.

They accuse him of corruption and abuse of power. On Thursday, he went straight from the airport to court, where he posted bail on a criminal case filed against him while he was abroad, and was released. He denies any wrongdoing.

Mr. Thaksin was banned from Thai politics following the coup. At a press conference in Bangkok after his court appearance, he said he intends to concentrate on promoting sports and other community services.

Mr. Thaksin says he does not want to be involved in politics any longer.

But few think he will keep that promise for long. Some analysts Thursday say his return is likely to usher in a new period of political confrontation in Thailand.

"All eyes will be on Thaksin, and Thaksin's personality is that he cannot help it: he cannot stay uninvolved," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "He likes to be the first mover. He likes to call the shots, so that's why I think we'll see initially his role will be indirect, but increasingly, it will be more visible."

The potential for strife exists within Mr. Thaksin's own support base. His Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded after the coup, but his supporters regrouped as the People Power Party. They won elections in December that brought Mr. Thaksin's ally, Samak Sundaravej, to power as prime minister.

Many voters at the time said they voted for Mr. Samak only because of his promises to bring back Mr. Thaksin. Mr. Samak has since said he still supports amnesty for Mr. Thaksin and others who were banned from politics, but only at the end of his term in office.