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BANGKOK: A cabinet reshuffle in Thailand has brought loyal allies of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into the government led by his sister, consolidating his grip on power as he bides his time before making a serious effort to come home.
Thaksin, ousted by the army in 2006, lives abroad to avoid a prison sentence for abuse of power but is widely thought to be running Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy from bases in Dubai and elsewhere through Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
A former telecoms tycoon who first became prime minister in 2001, Thaksin enjoys huge support among the rural masses but has powerful enemies among the conservative elite, the military and royalist activists, all of whom, he says, undermined his governments or those of his allies.
Thaksin has set no date for his return which would be deeply divisive. Many analysts believe it could upset a fragile peace that has been in place since the army crushed protests by his supporters in mid-2010 and about 90 people were killed.
For now, Thaksin is moving his loyalists into position while Yingluck rides high in opinion polls and does not do anything to antagonise Thaksin’s powerful enemies, in particular those in the army.
“We are seeing a Thaksin renaissance, with his top people being installed,” said Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a private think tank in Bangkok.
The 23 new cabinet names endorsed on Sunday by King Bhumibol Adulyadej include six members of Thaksin’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai party who re-entered politics after a five-year political ban against them for electoral fraud ended in May.
Other posts in the civil service and police have gone to Thaksin loyalists including Paradorn Pattanathabutr, who was made secretary-general of the country’s National Security Council and this month said Thaksin was “like a brother”.
For the time being, Thaksin has not tried to interfere too much with the army and powerful judiciary and risk stirring up a storm.
Also, plans to amend the constitution to facilitate his return that threatened to galvanise the opposition earlier this year have been put on the back burner.
“Time is on Thaksin’s side, and after a year the Shinawatras have decided to go slow because it’s better to be in the government than out of government,” Kan said.
But in a reminder of instability and a taste of what could be in store, an anti-government rally on Sunday drew up to 10,000 people led by Boonlert Kaewprasit, a retired military officer, taking aim at what he see as nepotism in Yingluck’s administration.
But for now, Thailand’s highly political army has shown no signs of moving against Yingluck.
The new cabinet line-up leaves Finance Minister Kittirat Na Ranong, a non-party financial market technocrat, in place despite an outcry over his admission in August that he told “white lies” about export prospects.
The reshuffle comes ahead of a censure debate next month that the opposition says will target Yingluck’s handling of floods in 2011 and a widely criticised rice intervention scheme.