Profile: Thaksin Shinawatra

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Despite living in self-imposed exile, Mr Thaksin is still a dominant and divisive presence in Thai politics

Thaksin Shinawatra is one of the most influential - and polarising - characters in Thai politics.

The Supreme Court has stripped his family of $1.4bn (£910m) in contested assets, over allegations of corruption and conflict of interest, but he remains determined to play a leading role in Thailand.

A telecommunications billionaire, Mr Thaksin was the first prime minister in Thailand's history to lead an elected government through a full term in office.

He was enormously popular, especially among the rural poor, but also proved a divisive figure and was deeply unpopular among many of Bangkok's rich elite.

After more than five years in power, he was ousted in a military coup in September 2006, accused of corruption and abuse of power.

He has been in self-imposed exile since - mostly in London or Dubai.

He faces a two-year jail sentence if he returns to Thailand, after being convicted in absentia on a conflict-of-interest charge.

Former policeman

But even though he is out of the country, he still effectively controls the main opposition Pheu Thai party, which his younger sister, Yingluck, is leading into a general election on 3 July.

Born in 1949 in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Mr Thaksin started his career as a police officer.

In 1973, he received a government scholarship to study for a masters degree in criminal justice in the United States.

When he returned he went into business, and during the late 1980s began building a successful telecommunications empire.

He founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party in 1998, and its rapid emergence transformed the country's politics.

Mr Thaksin swept into office in 2001, soundly defeating the old guard from the Democrat Party.

Poorer voters liked his offers of cheap medical care and debt relief, his nationalist platform and his contempt for the "Bangkok elite".

But big business also liked him for his CEO-style of government and his "Thaksinomics" policies, which created a new boom in a country where the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s had begun.

Mr Thaksin also won support for his handling of the tsunami relief effort after the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, which devastated parts of south-western Thailand.

Other things were not so easy. He had to face the fallout from his government's suppression of news of an outbreak of bird flu, as well as criticism over the violent deaths of more than 2,500 people during a crackdown on drugs in 2003.

Thailand's Corruption Commission found he had failed to declare all of his wealth, and he was also criticised over the government's handling of the upsurge in violence in the largely Muslim south.

Yet each time he faced pressure, Mr Thaksin appeared to ride out the storm, his backing among his key supporters - Thailand's rural voters - apparently unscathed.

Political turmoil

It was his family's decision to sell its shares in one of Thailand's biggest telecom groups, Shin Corp, that led to Mr Thaksin's downfall.

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Thaksin's younger sister is leading the main opposition party in upcoming elections

The sale, in early 2006, which netted his family and friends $1.9bn, angered many urban Thais, who complained that the Thaksin family had avoided paying tax and passed control of an important national asset to Singaporean investors.

Amid large-scale street demonstrations, Mr Thaksin called a snap general election for April 2006, effectively telling opponents to "put up or shut up".

But main opposition parties boycotted the polls and many voters chose to register a "no vote".

Faced with the threat of further protests, Mr Thaksin said he would step down. He did for a few weeks, but returned to office in May.

In September that year, following months of political uncertainty, the military seized power while the prime minister was out of the country.

Mr Thaksin relocated to the UK, but shortly after his allies won the first post-coup elections in late 2007, he returned to Thailand.

There he and his family faced a raft of corruption charges - allegations which the former Thai leader probably expected to come to nothing.

But the courts - greatly empowered by a new military-backed constitution - pursued the cases against him and his family with new vigour.

First his wife, Pojaman, and then Mr Thaksin himself were sentenced to jail terms - with the Supreme Court finding the former leader guilty of corruption.

His assets were frozen, forcing him to sell his controlling stake in English Premier League football club Manchester City shortly afterwards.

Mr Thaksin left Thailand, failing to return home for a court appearance from the Olympic Games in Beijing in August 2008, and became a fugitive.

Since divorcing his wife - who now lives in Bangkok after her sentence was suspended - he has spent most of his time in Dubai.

He remains very much at the heart of Thailand's political dramas.

Mr Thaksin's allies lost power at the end of 2008 after a series of opposition protests and court rulings, but they are still a force to be reckoned with.

The "red shirt" protesters - fiercely loyal to Mr Thaksin - regularly stage rallies demanding political change, and their hero often makes an appearance on a giant video screen to give them encouragement.

In May last year a bloody confrontation with the military ended prolonged protests, in which more than 90 people died.

Mr Thaksin may be in exile but he is still a dominant and divisive presence in Thai politics, and a factor in the forthcoming general election.