Thailand's prodigal premier returns to hero's welcome (video)

(dpa) - Coup-ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra returned to a hero's welcome Thursday at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, where he got down on his knees to greet his homeland in front of thousands of Thais who had gathered to meet him.        

Thaksin arrived at 9:40 a.m. on Thai Airways International (THAI) flight 603 from Hong Kong, ending 17 months he spent abroad in self-exile after being toppled by a military coup on September 19, 2006, on charges of corruption, dividing the nation and undermining the country's democratic institutions and the monarchy.

Thaksin, 59, knelt on his knees and raised his hands in a wai, the traditional greeting, bowing his head to the ground, upon leaving the airport terminal.

About 4,000 people had gathered outside the arrival terminal waving posters reading "Welcome Home," "We Love Thaksin" and "You are the Best Prime Minister."

Several government ministers including Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung and senior Buddhist monks were also at the airport to welcome back the former premier, along with 200 motorcycle taxi drivers, a special interest group that has supported Thaksin since he legalized their service in the capital.      

There were an estimated 600 police at the airport to provide security for Thaksin and keep the peace.

Although Thaksin has retained his popularity, especially among Thailand's rural and urban poor, he remains a divisive figure with many detractors among the political elite and Bangkok-based middle class who were at the core of an anti-Thaksin movement that started in early 2006 and eventually ended in the military coup that brought him down.

Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire who introduced populist politics to Thailand, winning a massive following among the poor, has repeatedly vowed not to reenter politics.

"I want to be an ordinary citizen," Thaksin told Thai reporters in Hong Kong before boarding his flight. "I want everyone to know that I have stopped politics."

Thaksin said his priority upon returning to Thailand was to face several court cases accusing him of corruption and abuse of power during his six years as prime minister from 2001-06.

"My duty is to defend myself against these unjust charges," Thaksin said.

Thaksin's lawyer, Pichit Chernban, said the time was ripe for his client to return because democracy had been restored to Thailand and the evidence was in place to defend him.

Thailand, which was under a military-appointed interim government for 15 months after the coup, held a general election on December 23, 2007, that brought the pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) to power, paving the way for the former premier's safe return.      

After his arrival, Thaksin and his entourage went immediately to the Supreme Court, which granted him an 8 million baht (250,000 dollars) bail on the condition he not leave the country without seeking the court's permission.

Thaksin faced an arrest warrant in Thailand, issued last year to pressure him to return to face charges that he abused his authority in 2003 by allowing his wife to bid on a 24-million-dollar plot of land at a government auction.

After the Supreme Court Thaksin visited the attorney general's office where he was granted bail on another case that he concealed his assets while in office.  

Thaksin was scheduled to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon at the posh Peninsula Hotel, where he and his family have taken up residence, reportedly for security reasons.

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