A few months after being deposed in a bloodless coup in 2006, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told TIME he planned to retire. But Thaksin hasn't kept his promise, regularly phoning in from self-imposed exile to rally his supporters back home. Last October, Thailand's Supreme Court found him guilty of corruption on charges that he maintains were politically motivated. Thailand, meanwhile, remains roiled by political turbulence, as pro- and anti-Thaksin forces struggle for control of the country. Since Thaksin was removed from office by a military junta, the country has cycled through five prime ministers some aligned with the polarizing tycoon, some vehemently opposed to him. Last September, protesters upset that elections had ushered in a pro-Thaksin government, even took over Bangkok's international airport for a week, virtually paralyzing the Thai capital. Thailand's current leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has vowed to use "every means we can" to extradite Thaksin; a Mar. 2 public appearance by the former Prime Minister in Hong Kong was canceled after Thai authorities announced they would attempt to have him arrested. Thaksin spoke with TIME's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief Hannah Beech by phone from Dubai about his renewed political ambitions and what it's going to take to heal his country. (See photos of Thailand's protests.)
Last time you spoke with TIME in January 2007, you said you were finished with politics and that you would retire. What changed?
[My political opponents] have been bullying me politically nonstop since then. I already declared that I wanted to retire. I wanted to spend my life with my family. But they were bullying me. The rule of law is not there [in Thailand]. The democratic process is not there. That is too much. All of my supporters urged me: 'you have to come and fight back politically.' They want [Thailand] to come back to a mature democracy.
But some would argue that your return to politics would make it more difficult to heal the divisions in Thai society.
I have to give moral support to my supporters. If I'm not going to fight anymore, that might hurt the feelings of my supporters. They are fighting for democracy. They are fighting for the rule of law. They are beyond just me.
So you are definitely planning a political comeback?
I don't have to come back politically, but I would like to do something that will help the people of Thailand. There must be a process under which I can come back. I want to come back to clear the chaos in Thailand, the civil war in Thailand. I want Thailand to be a peaceful country. If it's not necessary, then I will not run. But if it's necessary for the good of the country, then I'll do it. If [current Thai Prime Minister] Abhisit Vejjajiva can solve the problems, and the people support him, then that's fine.
How do you propose to clear the political air in Thailand?
If we don't settle the differences between the two sides, there's no way that Thailand can move forward. This mess has been there for almost three years. They have to start all over. Every party has to bury their hatchets.
Last year, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) staged massive protests and besieged Bangkok's international airport for a week. They accused the then-government of being your puppet and vowed to protest until that government fell. In the end, the court ruled that the ruling party had committed electoral fraud, and the government was forced out of office. What is your analysis of what happened?
The whole world condemned what happened with the PAD taking over the airport. It was really a quiet coup supported by the military. Many military officials were there, supporting the [PAD members, who wore] yellow shirts. That was made clear when the government instructed the military to clear the airport and the military was reluctant. They were part of it. This was really a coup. So that's the reason why [my supporters, who wear] red shirts are not happy about it. If we are a mature democracy under rule of law, these things will not happen. Those who violated the law must be prosecuted.
But wouldn't forgetting the past mean not prosecuting the PAD?
If we are to drop the charges, it has to be done on both sides, not just on one side.
Prominent scholars from around the world recently came together to criticize the way in which Thailand's lèse-majesté laws have been used to charge or jail several people, including an academic and a foreigner. What is your opinion of what has happened?
The laws have been there for many years. It was not that serious until now. They use the words 'loyal' or 'not loyal' to the monarchy as a tool to fight for power. That is bad for the monarchy and it's bad for Thailand. We should not allow this to happen. The law's intention is just to protect the monarchy. But now it's used to manipulate power. We have to redefine the law and not allow this much discretion.
Could Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej step in and comment on the laws?
The Thais should not comment on what the King should do.
Prime Minister Abhisit has urged other nations to start extradition processes against you because of a conflict-of-interest conviction you received last year. How do you feel about this?
Abhisit knows that [the conviction against me] happened because the military junta appointed [to the court] those who are clearly against me. [Abhisit] is a democratic man; he should not comment in this manner. The way he acts is purely political.
What do you think Abhisit can do to help relieve the political tensions in Thailand?
I don't think that he can do [anything] because he enjoys the power that was handed to him by the PAD and the military. Otherwise he would have to go through elections, and he will not get enough support.
So you think the Pheu Thai party, which supports you, has enough popularity to win an election?
Pheu Thai has to find prominent party leaders that can solve the problems of the country now. If we can find those types of people, then we can win. There are many good people in Thailand but we have to recruit them. It's very difficult because of what happened to me. The ones who are willing to do hard work for the country are really reluctant. Those people who are good, they are probably not interested.
Will an election heal the country?
The longer that you leave it like this, the more divisions there will be. They have to settle it quickly, especially if they are sincerely loyal to the King. The word "loyalty" has been used as an excuse to acquire power. We have to ask those who are behind the divisiveness to stop meddling into the system. When I was in power, there was a meeting in one house on Sukhumvit [Road in Bangkok] and one of the attendees revealed to me--and I have the tapes of what happened--that the meeting was about getting rid of me, by assassinating me or getting rid of me through politics or through the courts. I know who these people are. I'm thinking of naming names, but I'm afraid that may make the whole situation worse. I have to be extremely cautious. I have to bite my tongue and taste my own blood.
You said earlier that this is beyond you. If so, why is it necessary for you to return to politics?
The Thai people know how badly I've been bullied. This is politically motivated. That's the reason why even people who don't know me and don't like me have come forward. Because they feel like this is not fair.