Yesterday's much-anticipated verdict marks the culmination of a long process that began with Thaksin Shinawatra's ouster from power more than three years ago.
The flamboyant former Manchester City owner aroused and divided a Buddhist kingdom more associated with opportunism, fudging and a revolving door of leaders. Judicialisation of politics has been the major response of the royalist elite to the Thaksin "threat". But without a tradition of judicial activism, many judges are ill prepared for – and often uneasy with – their newly assigned mission. Constant recourse to the courts has undermined state legitimacy and infuriated Thaksin's supporters.
Judges have abolished a number of Thaksin-aligned political parties, banned most senior Thaksinite politicians from public life for five-year terms, and even ousted prime minister Samak Sundaravej for illegally hosting a television cookery show.
Thailand is now deeply polarised, organised around two rival networks: the pro-Thaksin forces versus the monarchists, which include the palace, the present Democrat government, and the military. As they squabble over power and spoils, Thailand has become increasingly ungovernable. A political compromise – a big dodgy deal, in short – is badly needed.
Thaksin remains a criminal in Thailand, and there is no obvious road open for his return; but returning around 40 per cent of his money is a significant concession by the establishment. Thaksin and his Red Shirts have two choices: to see the glass half-empty, or the glass half-full.
The writer is professor of South-East Asian politics at the University of Leeds