Thaksin fever once again hit Phnom Penh yesterday, with everyone from wide-eyed Thai loyalists to fawning ex-politicos heaping praise on the fugitive former Thai premier and one-time economic adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Reminiscent of Thaksin Shinawatra’s visit to the city almost two years ago, hundreds of his “red-shirt” supporters desperate for a glimpse of their beloved leader flocked in from Thailand, where Mr Thaksin has dared not tread lately for fear of arrest on a 2008 abuse of power conviction.
“We love him,” said Anuporn Ukrit, one of the dozens of red shirts gathered at the Phnom Penh Hotel for a chance to meet Mr Thaksin, who arrived in Cambodia on Friday night for a weeklong stay.
Mr Thaksin was ousted from power in a 2006 coup amid accusations that he was abusing his authority while in power and waging heavy-handed wars on drugs, and southern Muslim insurgents that critics said did more to fan the area’s ethnic and religious divides.
But none of that could be heard in Phnom Penh.
“He was a good prime minister. He helped the poor,” said Ms Anuporn, referring to the populist policies Mr Thaksin implemented during his years in power that have won him a near-unshakable place in the hearts of millions of Thailand’s rural poor.
By late afternoon, about 50 of his supporters had gathered at the back of the hotel to snap photos of a smartly dressed Mr Thaksin as he strolled from the elevator to a convoy of sleek black sedans.
Despite a phalanx of stern security guards, Saenee Klaythong, another red shirt, even managed to sneak in a quick hug with Mr Thaksin and hand him a garland of scented jasmine.
“He’s a very good man. The people love him very much,” a visibly excited Mr Saenee said after his embrace. “I think about him come back [to Thailand] very much.”
As it happened, Mr Thaksin was on his way to Mr Hun Sen’s office to pick up a medal that was being handed out to panelists who had participated in a forum yesterday morning on Asia’s economic future. Speaking at the medal award ceremony, Mr Hun Sen said the panelists had received the reward for “helping us [Cambodia] to achieve our goals.”
But the praise had not started there.
At the forum that morning, co-hosted by the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International and the Royal Academy of Cambodia, panelists from the rest of Asia veritably fell over one another to heap praise on the former Thai premier and wish him a speedy return to his home country.
With Mr Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, now heading a new government in Thailand following national elections in July, prospects are looking up for the at-large telecoms tycoon. Talk of a legal amnesty for him and other convicted red shirts has been picking up steam in Bangkok.
Amnesty or not, Mr Thaksin has always been welcome in Cambodia during his time away from home. Before launching into his address to the forum, he acknowledged the hospitality of his Cambodian hosts.
“I want to thank Prime Minister Hun Sen, my friend, who supported me, especially through my difficult time,” he said. “I feel warm every time I come here.”
Red shirts interviewed said thousands more of Mr Thaksin’s followers were coming to watch a friendly football match in Phnom Penh between Cambodian and visiting Thai lawmakers, which is set for Saturday and where Mr Thaksin himself may play a supporting role.
Thai media reports ahead of Mr Thaksin’s visit here speculated that the ex-premier would use his trip to help mend a perennial border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, help restart talks over contested offshore oil reserves and negotiate an early release for a jailed Thai activist convicted of espionage in Cambodia.
But both sides have insisted that Mr Thaksin would leave such politicized issues of state to his sister.