"Would you you like some durian?" A smile flashes across the face of Thaksin Shinawatra as he thinks of the notorious Asian fruit, famed for both its sweet taste and wrenchingly rotten smell. The former Thai prime minister has already served steamed pork balls, coconut noodles with green onion and a prawn and minced-pork curry, but he is adamant the meal will not be complete without this addition. He calls for one – thankfully it is not too ripe – and he appears content. "I always say the best Thai restaurant in Dubai is my home," he chuckles.
The business tycoon and former owner of Manchester City football club is perhaps the world's most famous political exile. Since being ousted from office in a bloodless coup in 2006, he has lived a peripatetic lifestyle, travelling the globe in his Bombardier Global Express jet in search of safe havens to continue his business operations and rally his supporters in Thailand. He has spent periods in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Brunei, the UK (where he complained he could not find a decent barber), Nicaragua, Montenegro and Cambodia.
Two-and-half years ago he decided to base himself in Dubai, where he lives in a comfortable villa, set on a private compound looking out to a lake and a golf course. Two luxury cars sit in his driveway, a Lexus LS 600h L and a gleaming black Jaguar, and he says he has flown 750 hours in the last 10 months. He admits he remains a billionaire.
Now, the 61-year-old is to once again be thrust centre stage in Thailand's bitter political turmoil as the party he controls from overseas, Pheu Thai (PT), launches an election campaign before a vote on 3 July. Thaksin has appointed an inexperienced but photogenic younger sister, Yingluck, as the party's prime ministerial candidate. A number of polls give PT an edge as it battles to beat the incumbent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his Democrat Party, but most observers say the outcome remains uncertain. The behaviour of the army, which has seized power on 18 occasions since the 1930s, will be crucial
"I think it looks very good. The popularity of the party and Yingluck is getting more and more," says Thaksin, as he voices concern that his opponents may try and undermine any PT victory by other means. "Even though we are the opposition, we still have the highest number of MPs in parliament. That's why they're scared, [why] they might use the same tricks. But if [our opponents] were to do it again, it would mean that they don't care [about] the world. They don't care [about] democracy in Thailand."
Thaksin remains a deeply divisive figure. He has widespread support among the rural and urban poor, especially in Thailand's north and north-east, who benefited from a series of populist measures he introduced between 2001-2006. Last year, his Red Shirts supporters filled the streets of Bangkok for many weeks as they demanded parliament be dissolved. But among the urban middle-classes and the political and business elite, he is often despised. Having been convicted in absentia of corruption in 2009 over a series of measures he took while in office which the country's highest court said benefited his extended family, £900m of his assets were seized and his passport was revoked, forcing him to obtain alternatives from Nicaragua and Montenegro. Many consider him nothing less than a fugitive from justice.
During his time as premier, the telecommunications tycoon also faced criticism from human rights campaigners, particularly for military operations in the "war on drugs", in which hundreds of civilian and dissidents were said to have been summarily executed, and for shutting down of critical journalists. In one incident at Tak Bai in October 2004, 78 men were suffocated and crushed to death after being loaded into the back of army trucks.
In the summer of 2007, when Thaksin bought Manchester City, a team whose fortunes he says he still follows, Human Rights Watch described him as a "human rights abuser of the worst kind".
Thaksin insists he is seeking reconciliation. Even though his supporters earlier this year filed an application at the International Criminal Court in The Hague seeking to have Mr Abhisit charged with crimes against humanity, he says the PT is ready to reach out to its opponents. "PT offers reconciliation. Even though we are the victims of this bullying, we offer this... if we win, we offer reconciliation. We don't want revenge," he says, sitting in a drawing room containing photographs of himself and various world leaders. "We don't want the country to be back down any more. We want the people to be back to normal life, we want the economy to progress. We want the country to move forward."
At the same time, particularly after the example of the protesters involved in the Arab spring, he doubts his supporters would sit back quietly if a fairly elected PT government was not allowed to take office. (After he was ousted, two subsequent allies who became PM were forced from office by the courts, over what supporters say were politically motivated allegations.) He believes the wider world would also not tolerate more violence. He has called for international observers to participate in the polls.
"There has to be a reason. They cannot just say we don't want you to become the government," he tells The Independent and another international newspaper. "If [our opponents] were to do something unethical, unlawful, it's not good for them, not good for the country, not good for the people... I really urge them to let things go according to what we call... democracy."
He adds, laughing: "I said that if you were to make an analysis between democracy and a man who is dressed with a suit and tie, we are now wearing a suit and tie but with slippers. If you don't look at the feet you don't know we are [not a] democracy. You thought we were a democracy because up here we are wearing a suit and tie perfectly. But we forgot to wear the shoes and the socks."
Thaksin was born in July 1949 in Chiang Mai. As a young man, he studied in the US before returning to Thailand where he served as a commander with the police force. He then started a series of business ventures, selling mobile phones and pagers, in a rapidly expanding market. It was this that gave him the wealth that helped launch his political career.
Despite comments made by PT that it hopes to enact an amnesty that would allow Thaksin to return to Thailand, he claims that having served six years as premier he harbours no ambitions to return to the office and would rather his sister took charge. "I will go home just in the case that things are settled down. I will not add any more problems for the country. If things have settled down and if I can be any [benefit] to the country then I will go. Otherwise I am quite settled abroad now. In the beginning I may feel upset but now I am settled."
One wonders whether the man protests too much. For all his claims about feeling settled in Dubai where the summer temperatures soar to 50C, he says he asks his children to visit at separate times so that his house does not feel so empty when they leave. He says he has now divorced from his wife, Pojaman, and that he may be unable to attend the wedding of his eldest daughter later this year. This may, of course, be part of a tactic to evoke sympathy; the former premier has previously been accused of trying to spin his image when, in 2007, he was said to have been behind a project carried out by a Thai television reporter who wrote a book, Thaksin, Where Are You, which portrayed him positively.
What appears certain is that Thaksin remains very much at the centre of Thailand's political opposition. When we visit a nearby golf course where he hits long drives – he says his handicap varies between 14 and 24 – an aide carries a small case of faux leather that contains six different cell phones, including a BlackBerry, a Nokia and an iPhone. He has a different number for business contacts, political supporters and members of his family and each phone has a separate ringing tune so he can immediately identify who is calling.
The phones are essential for his hands-on running of his business projects, which in recent years have seen him investing in mining operations across Africa. The projects he is currently involved in include gold-mining in Uganda, coal-mining in South Africa and platinum-mining in Zimbabwe. He is looking at other mines in Sierra Leona, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana.
Yet it is obvious politics remains his passion and he relishes the contest ahead with his opponents, as much as the food prepared by his Thai cook. "The more bullying they do, the more they press me, I say 'thanks'," he says. "The more bad things they do, it helps my campaign."
1949 Thaksin is born in the city of Chiang Mai. After studying in the US he works as a police officer.
1998 After a successful career as a telecommunications entrepreneur, Thaksin forms the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party.
2001 Thaksin is elected as Prime Minister for the first time, with Thai Rak Thai part of the governing coalition.
2003 He announces a 'war' on drug use. More than 2,000 people die during the crackdown.
2005 Thaksin is re-elected, with Thai Rak Thai forming Thailand's first single party government since the Second World War.
2006 A backlash against the Thaksin government's perceived corruption gathers momentum, including 'yellow shirt' street protests led by an army of Buddhist monks. A military coup eventually forces Thaksin into exile.
2007 Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party is banned. Thaksin, in exile, buys Manchester City football club.
2008 Potjaman Shinawatra, Thaksin's wife, is found guilty of fraud. Thaksin returns to Thailand, but departs again to avoid a corruption trial. Pro-Thaksin protests gather momentum.
2010 Pro-Thaksin 'red shirt' rallies bring the country to a halt. Thousands of his supporters pour containers of their own blood into the street in a show of loyalty.Reuse content