Thaksin’s return to Thailand, with scenes of adulation normally reserved for royalty, underlines the abject failure of the September 2006 coup. Those who reassured themselves with the rationale that Thaksin represented a greater evil than military intervention must now face the prospect that his long-term political capital may well have been strengthened by the events of the past 15 months. And those who celebrated the political exile of his 111 Thai Rak Thai colleagues must now be wondering if the court’s decision paved the way for a government team even less to their liking.
Several times over the past 15 months Thaksin has vowed that he has no future in politics. It is hard to take his undertakings seriously. As my colleague at the ANU, Peter Jackson, wrote a few years ago, Thai public life operates according to a “regime of images” whereby there is no necessary correspondence between public stances and private manoeuvres. What counts in public is that the right thing is said at the right time. As usual, Thaksin is working the public imagery cleverly. He can afford to bide his time and present himself as a loyal servant returning to his beloved homeland. Of course, when the time comes for Thaksin to take on a more formal political role there will be those that protest about his dishonesty given his previous promises of retirement. But their charges will have little traction in the court of public opinion. That’s how the “regime of images” works.