Deposed Thai Premier Maintains Rural Popularity
by Michael Sullivan
Morning Edition, March 12, 2008 · Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra pleads not guilty to corruption charges after returning from exile. He remains very popular, particularly among Thailand’s rural people and urban poor for his financial and social welfare policies.
Deposed Thai Leader Thaksin Returns Home
Thousands of supporters welcomed the telecommunications billionaire with roses when he arrived at the Bangkok airport. They cheered as he knelt and touched his forehead to the ground — a gesture of love for his homeland.
But Thaksin’s second stop was Thailand’s Supreme Court, where he posted nearly $270, 000 bail on corruption and conflict-of-interest charges. His wife Pojaman, who also faces corruption charges, returned in January and is now free pending trial. Both have said they look forward to a legal process they are confident will exonerate them.
A controversial politician, Thaksin was in exile, mostly in Britain, for the past 17 months. He was deposed by the Thai military in 2006 amid allegations that he and his family had evaded taxes in a nearly $2 billion deal to sell its shares in Thailand’s biggest telecommunications company.
A Businessman and Politician with a Police Background
The 58-year-old Thaksin comes from a wealthy family in the northern province of Chiang Mai. He began his career as a member of the Royal Thai Police and studied criminal justice in the United States during the late 1970s.
Thaksin left the police force in 1987, after he and his wife began developing outside business interests. They had a series of business failures, but built their fortune in the 1990s after obtaining a monopoly to set up a mobile phone company.
In the mid-1990s, Thaksin entered politics, serving as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in successive governments. Rivals later claimed that his political activism was at least partly a way to protect his business interests by preventing deregulation of Thailand’s telecommunications markets.
A Program that Won Support from the Rural Poor
In 1998, Thaksin was a co-founder of the Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) Party. The TRT won an overwhelming victory in 2001, on a platform that promised affordable health care, a debt moratorium for farmers and development funding for rural villages. Although he was credited with improving the lot of Thailand’s rural poor majority, critics accused Thaksin of trying to snatch dictatorial power and of nepotism, press censorship and corruption.
Opponents — mostly middle-class and urban — stepped up pressure against Thaksin and his familiy in 2006, when they sold the telecom stock tax-free. Facing intense criticism, Thaksin called a snap election, which was boycotted by opposition parties. The TRT won, but Thailand’s highest court invalidated the election. After months of political turmoil, Thailand’s military seized power in September, just before a new election was to be held.
An Exile in England
Thaksin went into exile in England (where he bought the Manchester City Football Club). The TRT party, charged with electoral fraud, was dissolved by order of a constitutional court. Many of its leaders, including Thaksin, were banned from politics for five years.
Last summer, Thaksin supporters who were not banned reorganized themselves as the People’s Power Party, promising to continue most of Thaksin’s programs The PPP won nationwide elections in December and now rules Thailand as part of a six-party coalition government. PPP leaders were among those who welcomed Thaksin with open arms, but his opponents warned that, if he tries to use political influence to evade criminal prosecution, they are ready to take action.