BANGKOK He skipped bail and fled into exile in London, but what really signalled the end of Thaksin Shinawatra's political comeback hopes was his parting swipe at Thailand's Supreme Court.
No one criticises the courts in Thailand, but if you're a former prime minister trying to clear your name in a slew of graft cases that followed a military coup, it's tantamount to blowing up the only bridge leading back home.
"He has defamed the court and so he's gone for good," Thaksin biographer and political analyst Chris Baker said after the 59-year-old telecoms billionaire failed to appear with his wife, Potjaman, at the Supreme Court on Monday.
Prosecutors allege that Potjaman, who was sentenced to three years in jail last month for tax fraud in another case, bought a prime piece of Bangkok real estate for a knock-down price from the government while Thaksin was in power.
The couple's trial will continue in their absence, and Thaksin's comments in a hand-written statement faxed to television stations from Britain will not endear the judges to his pleas of innocence.
In the note, he alleged that the cases building up against him and his inner circle were part of a plot by his political enemies -- namely, the royalist military elite that masterminded the September 2006 coup -- to "finish myself and my family".
"He is quite an emotional fellow, and he has lashed out very often in the past," Baker said.
"LOTS OF JUSTICE"
The court responded swiftly to the jibes, issuing an arrest warrant for Thaksin and Potjaman and seizing their respective 8 million ($237,000) and 5 million baht bail bonds.
It is beyond doubt that the comments will have infuriated judges who have the explicit backing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej to sort out the political mess in which Thailand has been mired for the past three years.
There is also the matter of more than $2 billion of Thaksin money sitting frozen in Thai bank accounts since the coup.
The temerity of his remarks brought immediate condemnation from General Boonsrang Niumpradit, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
"Such remarks by a former leader could damage Thailand's image by suggesting it has an unjust judicial system," Boonsrang told reporters after a monthly meeting of military top brass.
"I don't want to say he was right or wrong, but Thailand remains a good country with lots of justice," he said.
Even Thaksin's former political proteges in the People Power Party (PPP), which only won December's election thanks to his huge rural popularity, moved quickly to distance themselves from what now appears to be irreparably damaged goods.
"The party is independent. Thaksin's presence or absence doesn't have any sway on its direction," Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee said. Before the coup, Surapong was Thaksin's spokesman and one of his most trusted aides.
It remains to be seen what impact Thaksin's decision has on the PPP-led coalition government, which drew huge support from its talismanic proxy leader but also the vehement opposition of Thailand's old guard in the palace and military.
Thaksin's removal from the fray might take some of the heat off Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. although the PPP is itself facing possible dissolution by the courts for electoral fraud.
"This ship is full of holes, big and small, and is ready to sink any time. It is up to the captain to try to survive the waves and hold on as long as possible," said Boonyakiat Karavekphan of Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University.
($1 = 33.73 Baht)
(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan)