BANGKOK // Thailand's exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra told tens of thousands of supporters in his homeland that he cannot return as long as he has a jail sentence hanging over him. Thaksin, who served as the country's elected leader from 2001 until he was ousted by a military coup in September 2006, was this year convicted in absentia to two years in prison on conflict of interest charges. He spoke in a phone call broadcast to his supporters attending a rally yesterday at a Bangkok stadium. The event represented the biggest response yet of Thaksin's followers to a rival movement that is seeking to demolish his political legacy. Thaksin's opponents in the People's Alliance for Democracy accuse him of corruption and demonstrated for his ouster in 2006. The alliance has occupied the prime minister's office since late August and is seeking the resignation of the current prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, whom they call Thaksin's proxy. It was Thaksin's first opportunity to address the Thai public since he fled the country in August. "I want to return but I can't, although I miss you all," he said to a crowd that appeared to total about three-fourths of the stadium's 65,000-seat capacity. Thaksin said he had been persecuted by his political enemies, and that there was nothing that could allow him to return "except for the king's mercy or the power of the people". Thaksin has several arrest warrants against him and prosecutors have said they will seek his extradition from Britain, where he has made his home in exile. He remains the most influential politician in Thailand, where he is adored by the rural poor who benefited from his populist policies. But the educated urban elite largely revile him, judging him corrupt and power-hungry. The anti-government protesters have demanded a change to Thailand's Western-style electoral system, which they say Thaksin exploited to buy votes. They instead favour a system in which some representatives are chosen by certain professions and social groups. Thaksin touched on this in a video played to the rally after his phone call. "If we can't uphold democracy and rid the country of dictatorship, the chances of our country returning to a peaceful state are slim," he said. The rally yesterday was a peaceful event, but the pro- and anti-Thaksin factions have come to blows in recent months. On Thursday, a grenade attack wounded 10 members of the Pad near the prime minister's office compound. A street clash between government supporters and opponents in September left one person dead and several more hurt. On October 7, the alliance tried to blockade Parliament and police efforts to disperse them with tear gas led to running street battles. Two people died and more than 400 were injured.