Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was swiftly arrested, taken to court and jailed after he landed back home in Thailand after 15 years in self-imposed exile.
Thaksin, who made his fortune in the telecommunications business, boarded a private plane in Singapore and landed at Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport shortly after 9am (02:00 GMT) on Tuesday, according to Thailand’s Khaosod Media and Thai PBS.
Thaksin paid his respects to the king on his arrival and shortly afterwards was taken in a police convoy to the Supreme Court where he was charged with abuse of power and several other outstanding criminal offences, which he has described as politically motivated.
He was later taken to a Bangkok prison, with the Supreme Court releasing a statement saying he would serve a total of eight years in jail, the Reuters news agency reported.
Thaksin swept to power in 2001 on a populist platform that appealed to rural Thais who had long been neglected by the country’s ruling elites.
He was returned in a landslide five years later but, in September 2006, when Thaksin was in New York preparing to address the United Nations, the military seized power.
Thailand has been beset by political turmoil since the 2006 coup, with pro-Thaksin and rival pro-establishment supporters taking to the streets, amid a cycle of elections and coups.
Several thousand “red shirts” – the grassroots rural movement established to defend Thaksin’s government after the 2006 coup – gathered near the VIP terminal awaiting his arrival.
In a party atmosphere, with food and a soundtrack of the mo Lam music of Isaan, the rice-bowl northeast that is the family’s stronghold, they danced and cheered as his plane touched down.
Many held placards saying, Welcome home Thaksin”, while others chanted, “Welcome back Prime Minister”.
It was emotional for many, with some crying as they spoke of their devotion to Thaksin, principally for changing their economic fortunes after years of being ignored by successive governments in Bangkok.
Thaksin’s signature policies included a universal healthcare scheme opening virtually free treatment for basic ailments to tens of millions of poor for the first time, as well as village clinics and start-up funds.
“He has always helped making our lives better,” 63-year-old Ankana Nattakit from Nakon Ratchasima told Al Jazeera. “No other prime minister has done nearly anything as much for us. He’s the prime minister of the grassroots people.”
Pheu Thai, the latest incarnation of Thaksin’s party, came second in elections held in May.
After the progressive Move Forward Party, which won the election, was unable to form a government because military-appointed senators in the upper house refused to support it, Pheu Thai cobbled together a grouping of parties, including those backed by the military.
A vote was underway on Tuesday that could lead to the party’s Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon, becoming prime minister.
Srettha has the backing of 314 legislators in the lower house but needs an additional 58 votes to secure the job, which requires the backing of a majority of both houses.
It is not clear how Thaksin, who remains a politically divisive figure, might be affected if Pheu Thai were to be successful.
The Associated Press news agency reported Wissanu Krea-ngam, the deputy prime minister of the outgoing military-linked government, saying Thaksin would be eligible to request a pardon and could receive special treatment because of his age.
Some of the “red shirts” said that while they did not like Pheu Thai’s decision to link up with the military-backed parties, they could understand the rationale.
“I’m okay as long as Thailand moves forward with someone from Pheu Thai as PM,” said Chawalwit Parachai, 29, who was among the crowd outside the terminal.
Thaksin was taken away by police before he could greet his supporters in person but as he was driven to court, the posters along the highway hailing his return would have been a reminder of the esteem in which he continues to be held by many despite so many years away.