Tugging a red U.S. Open ball cap low on his forehead to fend off the blistering desert sun, the world's most famous political exile lofts a golf ball toward the mirage of the Dubai skyline, a drive that draws murmurs of approval from his fellow players at the $10,000-a-year club.
Thaksin Shinawatra smiles graciously at the applause and launches into tales of those he golfed with when he was prime minister of Thailand, before he was deposed in a 2006 military coup.
After a few dozen more swings, he invites his guests to what he calls "the best Thai restaurant in Dubai" - the multimillion-dollar home that has been his comfortable base for the past 2½ years while his homeland has been consumed with debate and deadly violence over the question of whether the country's most controversial son should be allowed to come back.
He is the hero of his country's poor and he believes the "Red Shirt" protests should be seen in the same light as the pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East. The military-backed Thai government calls him a "terrorist" and a fugitive from justice. The mention of Mr. Thaksin's name can divide a dinner table in Bangkok into two angry camps.
But Mr. Thaksin hardly lives the life of a man on the run.
Instead, the 61-year-old splits his time between circling the globe on a private jet and his two-storey villa in the posh Emirates Hills development on the outskirts of Dubai. He runs his Red Shirt political organization - as well as a resurgent business empire - through six mobile phones that he keeps in a zipped leather handbag, each with a different ring tone that tells him the nature of the caller: business, politics, friends, family, others.
In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail and The Independent newspaper of Britain, during which he gave unprecedented access to his private life in exile, Mr. Thaksin said he is confident that his Pheu Thai party will win a July 3 general election, perhaps opening the door for an amnesty that would allow him to return to Thailand.
He says that the party - now headed by his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra - will prioritize national reconciliation, even as he strongly hints that his nemesis, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, belongs in jail for ordering a bloody crackdown on Red Shirt protests in the centre of Bangkok last year that left 91 people dead.
The coming election offers yet another chance for Mr. Thaksin to prove wrong those who declared his political career dead in the wake of the 2006 coup, his 2008 conviction (in absentia) on corruption charges and again following the violence of last year.
The Pheu Thai party is just the latest incarnation of the political machine he built from scratch in 1998. An improbable alliance between some of Thailand's wealthiest businessmen and rural villagers angered by the country's widening wealth gap, it has under different names won the last three general elections, including unprecedented back-to-back landslides in 2001 and 2005 while Mr. Thaksin was top of the ticket.
Mr. Thaksin says he's heard "rumours" that his allies will again be kept from power if they win the July 3 vote. And he warned that while the military took power bloodlessly in 2006, another coup might be met with resistance.
"I don't think there will be another peaceful coup," he said. "The people are fed up."
For that reason, Mr. Thaksin believes it's unlikely there will again be tanks on the streets of Bangkok. More likely though, he said, is a "silent coup" whereby Pheu Thai might be kept from power through rulings of the Election Commission of Thailand or the courts, the latter of which forced a government headed by his brother-in-law from power after a pro-Thaksin party won the country's last election, in 2007.Report Typo/Error