BANGKOK (Reuters) - Sitting in her busy Bangkok noodle shop, Bunruen Klinnak professes “love” for Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup and later fled abroad.
But Klinnak, 55, also fears Thaksin’s return to politics could spell further unrest in a country rocked by coups and bloody street protests over the past decade.
“We need to save money and be frugal because we don’t know what politics will be like in the future,” she says.
This ambivalence among even his admirers suggests Thaksin’s political influence in military-run Thailand could be flagging despite a new publicity blitz by the self-exiled billionaire.
From his base in Dubai, Thaksin has thrown money and clout behind street protests and election campaigns, helping to install his sister Yingluck as prime minister in 2011.
But the military overthrew her three years later - she is now on trial for corruption - and purged the bureaucracy of Shinawatra sympathizers. It also monitored and briefly detained politicians loyal to the family.
Thaksin cannot take his old support base for granted, say analysts and allies, and might find himself struggling for relevance in a country which has undergone a profound political awakening in the past decade.
Even the “red shirts”, a grassroots political movement long considered loyal to Thaksin, show signs of outgrowing him.
In a Feb. 23 interview with Reuters in Singapore, Thaksin said Thailand had “gone backward” under a junta that had caused economic hardship and deepened political divisions.
Thais would not tolerate the junta for much longer, he added, although it’s unclear if he can exploit this dissatisfaction.
“The symbolic power that Thaksin and his sister carries is still something the military is very much concerned about,” said Ambika Ahuja, a Southeast Asia specialist at Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy.
“(But) his network of regional politicians, local civil servants, and business people has been weakened and disrupted over the years,” she said.
Thaksin remains hugely popular, especially in Thailand’s north and northeast. But this, he acknowledged, no longer translates into direct political power.
“Nobody from the Shinawatra family will be prime minister anymore. It’s over,” he said.
He is still wealthy, despite $1.4 billion in assets being frozen since the 2006 coup. According to Forbes, he is Thailand’s tenth richest man, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, although Thaksin told Reuters that he was “not even in the top 20.”
Returning home was Thaksin’s “most important priority,” said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a minister under both Shinwatras who was ousted alongside them in the 2006 and 2014 coups.
But Thaksin’s homecoming would seem unlikely so long as Thailand’s military-backed royalist elite remained implacably opposed to it.
Thaksin was also preoccupied with helping his sister, said Chaturon.
Last year a junta-appointed assembly impeached Yingluck and banned her from politics for five years. She is currently on trial on criminal charges over corruption in a multi-billion-dollar rice subsidy scheme.
“He persuaded his sister to come into politics and become the prime minister without much preparation,” Chaturon said. “And now she faces a very serious situation.”
Thaksin told Reuters he was worried about Yingluck.
Thaksin remained confident about his legacy, which included populist policies such as cheap loans and almost free healthcare.
“People never forget me,” he said in the interview.
But in recent months he and Yingluck have made many media appearances and distributed thousands of free books and calendars.
The aim was “to remind people of their achievements,” said Phumtham Wechayachai, secretary general of the Shinawatra-backed Puea Thai Party.
Some analysts said the campaign was deliberately timed to embarrass a junta that faces growing difficulties, including how to revive Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, which has struggled since the coup.
Underscoring the military government’s allergy to Thaksin, the authorities in northeast Thailand banned the calendars.
“I don’t know why they made it into such a big deal,” said Thaksin.
Even in the northeast, a traditional Shinawatra vote bank, ambivalence towards Thaksin isn’t hard to find.
“Thaksin thinks he knows the red shirts better than their leaders. This isn’t true,” said Thida Thavornseth, ex-chairperson of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, as the movement is formally known.
Many red shirts disagreed with Thaksin pushing Yingluck, then the prime minister, to pass an amnesty bill in 2013, said Thida.
The bill, which would have absolved Thaksin of his conviction, sparked huge street protests and prompted the military to again seize power.
“There are people who love Thaksin very much,” said Thida. “But there are also those in his own camp who hate him and are scared of him.”
Thaksin denied this. “The red shirts love me and I love them,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Aubrey Belford and Pairat Temphairojana.; Editing by Bill Tarrant