By JOCELYN GECKER
KOK LOI, Thailand (AP) — It’s been two years since the ouster of Thailand’s charismatic and controversial Thaksin Shinawatra. Yet amid the rice-growing villages of the country’s heartland, the former prime minister’s legacy lives on.
A walk down the rutted roads of Kok Loi illustrates why Thaksin, despite facing a possible conviction on corruption charges Tuesday, remains a polarizing figure in Thai society and the central figure behind the country’s deepening political crisis.
Villagers point to the homes they built during Thaksin’s tenure from 2001 to 2006, the refrigerators they bought, the general store they opened — all a result of the low-interest loans his government offered.
“Thaksin was the savior of the poor,” said Kamcham Pokasang, 68, a farmer from Kok Loi in the northeastern province of Buriram, where lush green paddies of jasmine rice stretch to the horizon. “Before Thaksin we had nothing, only rice fields. Thanks to Thaksin, my family now has everything.”
A five-hour drive away, in the bustling capital city of Bangkok, opinion is decidedly mixed.
Anti-government protesters have barricaded themselves in the prime minister’s office compound for nearly two months, paralyzing the government, splitting society down the middle and creating Thailand’s worst political crisis in years.
They accuse Thaksin of being corrupt, and consider Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat — Thaksin’s brother-in-law — a proxy for the former leader.
Thaksin, who was deposed in a September 2006 coup, is living in self-imposed exile in London, saying he will not get a fair trial in Thailand. His first conviction could come Tuesday, when a court is scheduled to rule on charges stemming from his wife’s 2003 purchase of a lucrative plot in Bangkok at a deflated price from a government agency.
Yet the 59-year-old former business tycoon remains the most prominent politician in Thailand. Love him or hate him, nobody can stop talking about him.
Protesters marched through Bangkok on Monday, calling for a purge of Thaksin loyalists from the government and accusing him of vote buying in rural areas.
“Thaksin is a bad man. He does everything for himself,” said Naree Sivaboon, 54, a government employee. “He never helped the people of Thailand.”
The Nation, an English-language newspaper, wrote in a commentary: “All problems in Thailand are seen by many as masterminded by Thaksin.” It noted that even a skirmish last week between Thai and Cambodian troops was “attributed to Thaksin’s maneuvering behind the scenes.”
The political crisis is a tug-of-war between Thaksin’s supporters in the countryside, where two-thirds of Thailand’s 65 million people live, and an educated middle class who feels threatened by the rural majority’s growing political clout.
Protesters believe Thaksin is operating behind the scenes to assure his allies stay in power long enough to clear him of corruption charges and help get his remaining riches out of the country.
Forbes Asia magazine put Thaksin’s estimated net worth at $400 million in July after Thai authorities froze more than $2 billion of his family’s assets pending the outcome of the corruption cases.
“Thaksin is behind every political move of this government,” said Suriyasai Katasila, one of the protest movement’s leaders. “He wants them to unlock his assets and clear his name so he can return to power.”
The residents of Kok Loi pay little heed to the corruption accusations.
“I don’t care if Thaksin was corrupt. All politicians are corrupt,” said Gad Pokasang, a 68-year-old rice farmer in Kok Loi.
He and his wife, Kamcham, praised Thaksin for banishing drug dealers, giving them affordable health care and helping put food on the table.
“We built this house thanks to Thaksin,” said Kamcham, also 68, as she proudly showed a visitor around her modest two-story cement home. “This TV and stereo came from Thaksin. This refrigerator and washing machine, our two motorcycles. Everything.”
Many in the rural heartland recall Thaksin as the first prime minister who paid attention to them.
He created a program known as the 1-million baht ($30,000) village fund, in which villagers could apply for low-interest loans of $600 each.
Kok Loi built a general store with interest generated from the loans.
“I’m so sick of all the protests in Bangkok,” said farmer Somporn Ongklang, who took a loan to buy a plowing machine. “Those people are not poor. They don’t know how difficult life can be, and how much Thaksin helped us.”
Kuthep Saikrajang of the Thaksin-allied People’s Power Party said rural residents benefited from cheap health care and other development brought by Thaksin’s administration. And they were infuriated by the coup that brought him down.
“That incident divided Thais into two groups — pro- and anti-Thaksin,” he said.
The group behind the protests, which calls itself the People’s Alliance for Democracy, is a mix of royalists, business owners, students and activists who say that Western-style democracy is wrong for Thailand. They say rural voters are too ignorant to choose the leadership and propose to weaken the rural voice in hopes of changing the balance of power.
Analysts have criticized the idea as turning the clock back, and villagers in Nohn Makok, near Kok Loi, are outraged.
“I might be poor, but I know they can’t take away my right to vote,” said Somboon Boontee, a rice and tapioca farmer who scrapes by on under $2,000 a year. “If you ask me, Thailand’s troubles started when Thaksin left.”