Former Thai PM Thaksin warns on democracy, economy in New Year's message to supporters over Skype

 Puea Thai party members waving as former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra waves to them during a Skype video call on the occasion of Songkran festival at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, on April 7, 2016.
Puea Thai party members waving as former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra waves to them during a Skype video call on the occasion of Songkran festival at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, on April 7, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS/AFP) - Politicians must love their people or risk the extinction of democracy, Thailand's fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told a gathering of supporters on Thursday (April 7), warning that Thais face tough times because of a weak economy.

In recent months, Thaksin, who was ousted by the army in 2006, has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of the ruling military government.

"Those in politics must love people. If they don't love people, democracy will die," Thaksin said in a Skype telephone address to the gathering to mark the Thai New Year that starts next week. He did not elaborate on his remarks, however.

The meeting of more than 100 former politicians was a rare event in a country where political gatherings of five or more people have been banned by the military, which seized power in a coup in May 2014.

No troops were present at the gathering.

Applause erupted among the party faithful as the 67-year-old cop-turned-telecoms magnate appeared on a sketchy Skype link from an undisclosed country.

Thursday's event was avowedly non-political, in keeping with a ban on political expression under military rule.

Instead, it was billed as a "cultural event" to celebrate Songkran - the water festival and Thai new year - with Puea Thai Party members decked out in bright floral traditional shirts.

"I miss you and I think about you all, especially the people that have fought for the party," Thaksin, who was also wearing a Songkran shirt, said in an address cut short by a poor internet connection.

South-east Asia's second-biggest economy is slowly recovering from the events of 2014, when months of street protests and the coup brought the economy to a standstill.

"Right now our people are in a difficult position because the economy is weak," Thaksin added in his speech.

Junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree declined to comment on Thaksin's speech, saying he had not yet heard, or read, the remarks.

Thursday's gathering was seen by critics as a continuation of a publicity drive by Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, which has included the distribution of books, a cooking display and interviews with foreign media.

Last week, Thaksin said the government should focus on dealing with the country's problems after soldiers seized thousands of red plastic bowls he and Yingluck sent supporters as a New Year gift.

Thailand has been politically fractured for more than a decade, split roughly along north-south lines between supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck and the military-backed royalist elite.

The generals and their establishment allies largely despise Thaksin and accuse him of vote-buying and harbouring republican sympathies, among other accusations, all of which he denies.

The Songkran holiday, Thailand's traditional New Year, is typically a time when many people leave the city to spend time with family.

In previous years the festival has been marred by often violent political protests, including anti-government protests in April and May 2010 that ended with a military crackdown in which 91 people were killed, mostly Thaksin supporters.

Puea Thai was booted out from office by the army in May 2014. Thaksin's sister Yingluck - who was at Thursday's gathering - was removed as prime minister by the courts a few days before the power grab.

Thaksin was also shunted from office by a coup in 2006.

He has not returned to Thailand since fleeing in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction he insists was politically motivated.

But his increasingly frequent media forays have infuriated junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha.

The Shinawatra clan still draws the adoration of farmers from the north and northeast for recognising their changing social and economic aspirations - as well as a swathe of the urban middle class.

The Thai junta says it will hold elections in the summer of 2017, once a new graft-busting constitution has been enacted.

Critics of the proposed charter say it embeds military rule and aims to create a straitjacketed democracy, managed by an appointed senate.

"The election will be meaningless if it is based on this constitution," Mr Chaturon Chaisaeng, the education minister in Yingluck's cabinet, told AFP.

"It's a long way off, but I cannot say if we will take part in any election based on this constitution."

Yingluck, Thailand's first female leader, retains support despite also facing jail for negligence linked to a rice subsidy scheme.

And the junta is going to increasingly absurd lengths to muffle support for the Shinawatras.

Last week police seized thousands of red bowls signed by Thaksin distributed in the Shinawatra heartlands for the Thai new year.

A woman who posted a picture with a bowl is also facing sedition charges.