Exiled Thai leader is father of the bride ahead of election

HONG KONG — Thailand's exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won't know until Sunday whether people in his homeland are still fans of his politics, but he was happy as he hosted a wedding reception in Hong Kong for his youngest daughter.

Though ostensibly a family affair with a raft of VIP guests, the timing of Friday ceremony two days ahead of Thailand's first general election since a 2014 military coup seemed to carry an implicit message to Thaksin's countrymen: Don't forget me and my political allies when you go out to vote.

Thai Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, who made an abortive attempt last month to be a prime ministerial candidate for a political party allied to Thaksin, was a special guest. Although Thaksin was ousted by a 2006 military coup, the Pheu Thai party of his loyalists is expected to capture the most seats in Sunday's polls, though forming a government will prove much more difficult.

Thaksin has not been back to Thailand since 2008, when he fled the country to avoid serving a prison term for a conflict-of-interest conviction he insists was politically motivated. Thailand's conservative establishment hates him because of his authoritarian tendencies and the electoral strength he drew from the country's poor and rural majority with his populist programs.

Thaksin was not able to attend the actual marriage ceremony in Thailand last Sunday of his youngest daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, with Pidok Sooksawas, a pilot at a commercial airline. He beamed in through a video link, however, a method he frequently used to talk to his followers in the early years of his exile.

Also absent at the nuptials in Bangkok but present in Hong Kong was Thaksin's sister, former Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was toppled in the 2014 coup and who also fled into exile ahead of an expected prison sentence.

A video posted on Instagram by a guest at Friday's reception showed the bride, evidently referring to her father, telling guests: "You know the reason why I — we — have this wedding this far away from our hometown. It's because home is where your heart is, and my heart is right here."

Reporters hovering outside the entrance to Hong Kong's Rosewood Hotel were able to shout a few questions to Thaksin as he escorted guests inside but received only brief answers. He said he was "very happy" in English, and when asked in Thai how he felt about the elections, he replied, "I don't know yet."

However, in a video shown on the website of Thailand's Matichon newspaper group, Thaksin did talk briefly about politics in remarks to the crowd at the reception.

The wedding reception had long been planned for March 22, but the election had been provisionally scheduled for Feb. 24. Had the election taken place before the reception, he said, the room would not have been big enough to hold all the well-wishers and guests because the parties loyal to Thaksin "will win for sure."

"Thailand has been taking away rights, lacking opportunities, for five years," he said. "Now Thailand is longing for the election. It is time for the Thai people who have been wanting to see freedom, wanting to see the economy prosperous again, wanting to see confidence from investors."

Thaksin beamed as he walked the princess into the luxury hotel, which overlooks Victoria Harbor.

Ubolratana caused an uproar when the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart Party registered her as its nominee for prime minister in an unprecedented move for a member of the royal family, which by tradition is supposed to stay out of politics. The move was seen as a clever ploy by Thaksin's political machine to immunize itself against charges that it opposed the monarchy, an allegation that conservative Thais had hurled at the ambitious businessman-politician.

The move turned into a disaster for Thai Raksa Chart when only hours later, Ubolratana's younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, declared that the nomination was inappropriate and unconstitutional. In short order, the state Election Commission rejected the nomination, and a court dissolved the party and imposed a 10-year ban on political activity by its executive board.

Disbanding Thai Raksa Chart was a bow to Thaksin's political allies because it was hoped the party would add parliamentary seats to the total accrued by the flagship Pheu Thai party. The junta that took over Thailand had already rewritten the constitution and electoral rules with an eye toward limiting the power of large political parties and increasing the chances of a weak coalition government.

Members of the disbanded party, along with other allies of Thaksin, attended Friday's wedding reception.

Thaksin made a fortune in the telecommunications sector before going into politics, and even though Thai authorities seized a big chunk of his wealth, he remains a globe-trotting businessman based in Dubai, though the extent and details of his holdings are unclear. He is a former owner of the Manchester City soccer club in England's Premier League.

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Preeyapa T. Khunsong in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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